Bellingham might ask for many changes to jail plan

A rendering of the proposed new Whatcom County Jail, which could be built off LaBounty and Sunset Roads in Ferndale.
A rendering of the proposed new Whatcom County Jail, which could be built off LaBounty and Sunset Roads in Ferndale. Courtesy to The Bellingham Herald

City Council could ask Whatcom County to make a slew of changes to a plan to pay for and use a new jail that would make the yearly bill cheaper for the city.

The council could vote to send their detailed offer back to the county during a Monday night meeting, Sept. 14, on the heels of a Wednesday, Sept. 9, special meeting held to talk about the draft.

In the mayor’s boardroom Wednesday night, five of the seven council members (Jack Weiss and Roxanne Murphy excused) met with City Attorney Peter Ruffatto, Mayor Kelli Linville and other staff while 20 or so staff and citizens listened in.

Ruffatto explained the changes the city staff had made to the agreement in the last week, editing the base document that has already been signed by the Whatcom County Council and six small cities.

Bellingham would hope to sign a separate agreement with the county under newly negotiated terms, as the other cities have said they are happy with the deal they signed.

Proposed changes, as described by Ruffatto

Extended contract: If the agreement is signed but the voters don’t approve the funding – a 0.2 percent sales tax increase (20 cents on a $100 purchase) on the ballot in November – the soon-to-expire contract the city has for jail services would extend through the end of 2016.

Equity principle: The city could offer to pay 15 percent of the price tag to build a new Whatcom County Jail, covering what Bellingham staff said is more than the city’s fair share, as Bellingham inmates make up about 13 to 14 percent of the jail’s daily population.

This differs from the county’s plan, which asks the city to dedicate most of its share of the revenue from the new sales tax to the county for the first three years, and make set payments.

Under the 15 percent agreement, they city would start making payments in 2016, which means the city could pay more or less depending on the actual costs of the jail project, Ruffatto said. Payments would be made until the bonds are paid off, or 2048.

Creating a capital fund: Linville said she has repeatedly asked that the costs to build the new jail and the costs to operate it be separated in the agreement. Since that hasn’t happened, city staff propose creating a closed capital fund to hold onto the lump sum payments from everyone who agrees to help build the jail. That money would first and foremost be dedicated to paying off the bonds.

As written in the county’s current plan, once the need for capital payments goes away, 0.1 percent of the sales tax goes away.

Trimming demolition costs: The county’s estimate for a 521-bed jail is $97 million. That price tag includes the estimated $6 million cost of demolishing the current jail and building a new holding space and sally port to transfer inmates to the Whatcom County Courthouse.

“My understanding is in no way will that serve the cities, so it shouldn’t be included in this,” Ruffatto said.

Removing that project could drop the cost to $91 million.

Sharing the wealth: In 2004, Whatcom voters passed a 0.1 percent sales tax increase to pay for a new jail.

Among other things, the money raised from that tax helped pay for a minimum security facility that can hold up to 150 of the jail’s inmates.

From 2006 to 2014, $6.1 million of the revenue collected was credited to the cities to lower their bed-day costs, which are paid per inmate they keep in the jail.

Now, the county’s plan would funnel all of the revenue from that existing tax toward its own bed-day costs.

Bellingham proposes instead that the existing tax go into the shared pot to lower the daily costs for everyone, not just the county.

“Based on this agreement, we will need to take (additional) money out of our general fund to pay for jail costs,” Linville said. “I believe the county should have to do the same for their costs.”

Negotiate before ending contract: As written by the county, the agreement could expire once the bonds are repaid. Bellingham staff would add a requirement that once the bonds are paid, the county continue to provide jail services while a new contract can be negotiated.

Size: The council also could opt to recommend a 450-bed jail, instead of the planned 521-bed facility.

Ruffatto recommended the council also should make it clear that the city would be open to a good-faith discussion with the county about building and approving a different size jail.

Council discussion

At Wednesday’s meeting, council member Dan Hammill was concerned about committing to pay for 15 percent of the capital costs if the city also planned to continue working on jail alternatives and diversion programs that could lower the actual use of the jail.

“Fifteen percent is above our actual use of about 13.44 percent,” Hammill said. “If those treatment programs are successful, those numbers could go down to 10 percent or 11 percent. We are asking our taxpayers to pay for something not being used by them.”

Council member Michael Lilliquist proposed scrapping most of the agreement to go back to an “all-in” proposal where the cities would dedicate all the cash from the new sales tax (if passed by voters) and the existing 0.1 percent tax to the county. In return, he said, the county could accept that as the only revenue to build and operate the jail and not charge the cities a daily rate to keep their inmates there.

“Right now we have a drain in our general fund,” Lilliquist said. “Under the all-in that drain would go away and create room in our budget to pay for alternative treatment programs.”

Council member Terry Bornemann said he didn’t disagree with what Lilliquist was saying, “but, and there’s one big but, the mayor already proposed this and it was rejected by the county.”

Lilliquist said the offer they were considering Wednesday, largely based on a proposal sent to the county in June, also had been rejected.

“If they’ve already rejected this, why propose it again?” Lilliquist said. “Many things have changed in the last several months.”

The present members voted 4-1, Lilliquist opposed, to bring the city’s newly drafted offer forward for a vote on the 14th.

Next steps

If the Bellingham council votes Monday night to send the offer to the Whatcom County Council and Whatcom County Executive Jack Louws, the county will need to decide if the offer is a good one.

The renewed offer was drafted partly in response to the City Council’s Aug. 31 meeting, during which Louws asked the council to bring him a detailed list of changes so he could continue negotiating the terms.

Louws asked the council to bring forward “realistic changes.” When asked in an interview Sept. 1 what a realistic change might be, Louws said “slight modifications” to the funding plan might be acceptable.

When asked Wednesday night why the city’s proposal, unacceptable to the county up to this point, would pass now, Linville said she thought it would take direction from the County Council to be successful.

“I don’t necessarily think that Jack will agree to this unless the (county) council says they agree,” Linville said. “He said, you reported, that he would consider minor changes. These aren’t minor changes.”

Linville said she had told the City Council members that they could support the sales tax on the ballot without having a signed agreement if the county were to commit to some of the city’s underlying principles on the jail agreement.

“We could support a ballot measure once we have some sideboards around the conversation,” Linville said. “I think they need to take some action that actually gives us the security that an agreement will address our issues.”

Reach Samantha Wohlfeil at 360-715-2274 or samantha.wohlfeil@bellinghamherald.com. Follow her on Twitter at @BhamPolitics.