Whatcom County, Bellingham could sign jail agreement after election

A cell at the Whatcom County Jail, as seen March 26, 2015, in Bellingham.
A cell at the Whatcom County Jail, as seen March 26, 2015, in Bellingham. The Bellingham Herald

Whatcom County Council hopes there’s a chance Bellingham will join in supporting a sales tax increase to pay for a new jail in time for the November election.

A non-binding resolution spelling out what the city and county can agree on — and what they need to do as they continue to work out a deal to pay for and use the proposed new Whatcom County Jail — was introduced at the County Council meeting Tuesday night, Sept. 15. The resolution won’t come up for a formal vote by that body until Sept. 29.

The framework, brought forward by council member Rud Browne, recognizes that there is not enough time to reach a new deal before the Nov. 3 election, and gives the two until Jan. 31, 2016, to sign an agreement, while underlining the need to pass the sales tax in the meantime.

“The ballots drop in a matter of weeks and we’re running out of time,” Browne said during Tuesday’s meeting. “I’m trying to identify where we do have common ground now ... but to also say we can’t get this done before the election. It’s too complex and there’s too many moving parts.”

Browne said he has participated in lengthy negotiations in the business world, and he thinks it’s a good idea to periodically check in to reflect on common values, outstanding issues to be worked on, and remind the parties what might happen if the negotiations don’t succeed.

The document lays out basics of how negotiations should continue if voters pass a 0.2 percent public safety sales tax increase (20 cents per $100 purchase) to fund the project.

If there isn’t an agreement by the time election results are in, both the city and county would open up internal funds to collect and hold the sales tax revenue until an agreement is reached. If they make a deal, the cash in those accounts and future proceeds would be spent as agreed.

Bellingham Mayor Kelli Linville and some Bellingham City Council members have said they are concerned that the agreement the county and six small cities have already signed does not include specific plans to pay for additional preventive or alternative programs that can keep people out of jail.

Browne’s resolution stipulates that a jail use agreement should be finished first, and then the groups could look at additional funding for crisis intervention, triage services, incarceration prevention and reduction programs.

If the city and county can’t reach an agreement, the resolution states, Bellingham would need to look into its own jail and prevention options while collecting the sales tax as outlined in state law.

The county would agree to work on a transitional agreement while the city finds another place to keep its inmates. The county would give first priority to its own inmates (the county is obligated to house all inmates on felony charges, regardless of who books them) and the inmates of the other cities that already signed a new jail use agreement.

Linville has said she could support the ballot measure without a final agreement if there were “some sideboards around the conversation” to give some security that an agreement would address the city’s issues.

When asked in an interview Wednesday, Sept. 16, whether that unified support would come in time to get the message out to voters, Browne said it would be challenging.

“I think the worst of all situations is that the ballot measure doesn’t pass for whatever reason, and we’re still confronted with the same problems,” Browne said. “There are some important issues that need to be resolved, and we need more time to work on them. But in the meantime we do need to secure the funding because none of the problems we’ve identified are going to have easy solutions if we don’t have support from the sales tax initiative.”

Bellingham lays out terms

Browne’s resolution was introduced after the county received a detailed list of proposed changes to the jail agreement from Bellingham City Council Monday night, Sept. 14.

With less than a day to look over the city’s changes, the County Council opted to hear a brief introduction from Linville and look into the details over the next two weeks.

The existing deal between the county and six small cities asks the cities to dedicate the majority of their share of the sales tax revenue to the county in the first few years to make sure that bond payments can be made.

Bellingham thinks that agreement asks the city to pay more than its fair share for the new jail, so it has asked to continue negotiating. The six small city mayors also asked Whatcom County Executive Jack Louws to continue negotiating with Bellingham for a unified jail.

Among the changes Bellingham has asked for:

▪  A jail with 450 beds instead of 521 as proposed. If it needs to be larger, the city would want to continue negotiating the number.

▪  Bellingham would pay 15 percent of the price tag to build the jail, since the city’s inmates make up 13 to 14 percent of the jail’s daily population.

▪  Cutting the roughly $6 million cost to demolish the current jail and build a new holding space from the agreement, as the city thinks the county should pay for that.

▪  All parties continue sharing revenue from a 0.1 percent sales tax that voters passed in 2004 to pay for a new jail. Currently, the county plans to spend all that revenue on its own daily costs to house inmates.

Louws said he planned to analyze the proposed changes “both fiscally and practically” and then meet with the small city mayors Tuesday, Sept. 22, to talk about the changes.

“I want to take what Bellingham has presented very seriously, consider whether all or parts of it are going to be very reasonable, and make a comprehensive reply to their request for changes,” Louws said in an interview Tuesday afternoon.

Common ground

Here are the specific points the county and city agree on, as penned by Browne:

▪  The existing jail near the county courthouse needs to be replaced.

▪  The jail needs mental health beds and inmate program space that can only be provided in a new facility.

▪  Paying for the jail requires a new source of cash.

▪  The county also needs a separate behavioral health triage center (encompassing mental health, chemical dependency and other issues).

▪  Everyone wants to incorporate the recommendations of the County Council’s Incarceration Prevention and Reduction Task Force but also recognizes that group’s first report won’t be done until early 2016.

▪  The most time-critical priority is to get voters to support the November ballot measure to provide funding for the new jail.

The resolution also recognizes the areas Bellingham wishes to continue negotiating.

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

Incarceration Prevention and Reduction Task Force

The group that will come up with ideas for keeping people out of jail through preventive and alternative programs will hold its first meeting from 9 to 11 a.m. Monday, Sept. 21.

The meeting will take place in the fifth floor conference room at the Whatcom County Courthouse, 311 Grand Avenue.