Jail chief, critic debate need for Whatcom sales tax measure

An inmate shows playing dice made from pieces of a Whatcom County Jail cell wall on Thursday, July 30, in Bellingham.
An inmate shows playing dice made from pieces of a Whatcom County Jail cell wall on Thursday, July 30, in Bellingham. The Bellingham Herald

Should Whatcom County voters support increasing local sales tax by 20 cents per $100 purchase to pay for a new jail or not?

Whatcom County Jail Chief Wendy Jones and Doug Starcher, the citizen who co-wrote the “con” statement against the sales tax measure in the voter’s guide, tried to tackle that question and others during a League of Women Voters forum Tuesday night, Sept. 29. The sales tax is on the November ballot.

Starcher said he’s not a member of any political party, committee or group, but a citizen who has followed the jail issue most of his adult life.

Jones said she has an interesting perspective because she is both an administrator and manager of the jail, and a citizen of Bellingham.

The current downtown jail opened in 1984 to hold 148 inmates and has been retrofitted to hold up to about 280. A minimum security work center was built in 2006 to house inmates and take strain off the main jail. That location can hold up to 150.

Below are some of the questions they were asked, and excerpts from their responses. To see the full responses both against and for the ballot measure and the rest of the candidate forum, visit the city of Bellingham YouTube page.

Question: What is the most compelling argument for why voters should or shouldn’t support this new tax?

Starcher: Starcher said his problems with using a sales tax include that there is already a 0.1 percent sales tax to build a new jail that Whatcom County voters passed in 2004, and sales taxes are regressive and “they hurt the people that can afford to pay them the least.”

“There are a number of financing methods available to the (Whatcom) County Council that they could vote on right away,” Starcher said, mentioning real estate excise tax and the county’s banked property taxing capacity as two options. “I think the county should take responsibility for funding this new jail.”

Starcher said he supported building a new interim minimum-security facility when he was on the Bellingham Planning Commission. Of that building’s $10 million price tag, $2.4 million was paid for by the existing sales tax.

“One of the problems with using the sales tax financing is it’s volatile,” Starcher said. “When the economy goes in the tank, sales tax revenue goes down.”

Jones: “It comes down to the reason you should support this is because this is the right time and the right way of doing it,” Jones said.

“The county jail is a community problem, and the interesting thing to me is that almost everyone I’ve heard speak on either side of this issue agrees. ... Inevitably people start out their sentence with ‘Everyone knows we need a new jail’ then we get a comma, and a ‘but.’”

“My objective tonight is to get rid of the comma and the but and instead focus on a simple declarative sentence. We need a county jail. We need one to replace the one downtown because it is literally falling down around our ears. And the community seems to understand that.”

The sales tax, she said, is a “little bit of money spread out over a lot of people.”

“What the county is asking about on a $1,000 purchase is two dollars,” Jones said, holding up two $1 bills.

Q: Bellingham’s mayor and city council agree a new jail is needed but challenge the details of an agreement to pay for and use the jail. What effect, if any, should the participation of Bellingham have on a voter’s decision about this issue?

Jones: “I don’t think it should have any.

“The sales tax will hopefully pass that will generate sales tax funds to help correct this problem,” she said. “The city of Bellingham has said, ‘We want to do all these wonderful things.’ If the sales tax passes, the city of Bellingham would be able to keep the revenue that it generates and they can do with it whatever they want that revolves around public safety.”

Starcher: “I don’t think whether you vote for or against this has anything to do with negotiations between the mayor and the executive. I don’t see a link.”

Q: In 2004, Whatcom County voters, by a wide majority, supported a measure to raise the sales tax by 0.1 percent with the promise it would build a new jail. What promise do the voters have this time around that this tax will result in a new jail?

Starcher: “I supported that. I agreed in 2004 we needed a new jail.

“Let’s look at the history. That tax was projected to collect $37 million to date. It actually collected $31 million. So, they’re volatile and not predictable.”

Starcher listed places where the money has been spent, including $16.9 million to operate the minimum-security work center.

Jones: “A lot of that went in for the construction of the work center.”

The downtown jail also needed a failing electronics system to be repaired (it’s still not working right), and other major issues continue, such as plumbing failures, Jones said. The cities also got back about $6 million of the tax revenue to pay for their jail costs.

“Another thing that complicated it was the county built that premise on certain growth in the sales tax revenue, and with the recession, that failed.”

Q: Even if this measure passes, construction will take approximately four years. What measures should we take immediately to deal with the issues?

Starcher: “Our focus should be on who’s in jail and why.

“We have bed space now. ... We have head room, or we’re supposed to have head room at the work center. How many of those folks could be moved?

“We have 12 people on electronic home detention. Aren’t there more people who should be eligible for that?

Jones: “Part of the difficulty is we have a lot of the offenders at the downtown jail that at this point can’t be housed at the work center. It’s a minimum-security facility, it was built to minimum security standards.

“This is a piece of mortar that one of my inmates with his nails and a toothbrush managed to pry out of between the concrete walls,” Jones said holding up a thin gray chunk of mortar. “They did that because they wanted to pass something to the guy that was on the other side. That doesn’t speak to having those offenders over at the work center since it’s basically drywall. If they were able to do this with a toothbrush you can only imagine what they would do to that facility.”

Closing statements.

Starcher: “Vote no.

I’ve given you all the reasons. Vote it down and start over.”

Jones: “This is a community problem and the community seems to acknowledge it.

“Voting no and kicking this down the line even farther than it’s been is simply going to make the situation worse.

“This is a community that values itself on the way that it treats human beings,” she said. “I don’t see how anyone in good conscience can look at the circumstances of the downtown jail and see in any way that it is a humane way of keeping the people who live there and the people who work there.

“It is basically an above-ground dungeon. If the humane society were keeping their rescue animals in the same circumstances that we are having to keep human beings, this community would be horrified.

“This should not continue, and I don’t believe the community wants it to. This is the right time and it is the right solution. Please vote yes.”