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Work group’s task: How to pay for a new Whatcom jail

Maximum security cell block at the Whatcom County Jail March 26, 2015, in Bellingham. The Whatcom County Council has approved creating a task force to figure out a way to pay for a new jail.
Maximum security cell block at the Whatcom County Jail March 26, 2015, in Bellingham. The Whatcom County Council has approved creating a task force to figure out a way to pay for a new jail. pdwyer@bhamherald.com

After last year’s plan to pay for a new Whatcom County jail flopped with voters, the Whatcom County Council has tasked a group of officials with figuring out how to pay for the project.

The council voted 5-2 on Tuesday night, June 14, to form a work group of officials from Whatcom County, Bellingham, the small cities, local tribes and law enforcement to craft the funding plan by next year.

The move follows the success of the similarly focused EMS funding work group, which brought unions, fire chiefs, and county and city officials together to craft a plan to pay for county ambulances. The group settled on asking for a levy, which will go before voters this November.

Whatcom County voters rejected a plan to pay for a new jail with a 0.2 percent sales tax increase (20 cents per $100 purchase) in November 2015, likely due to disagreement over the plan between the county and the city of Bellingham.

To make sure everyone is on the same page for the next attempt – which, according to the resolution would be no later than November 2017 – the work group’s goal will be to reach an agreement on how to pay for a new jail and how the cost of building and operating it should be divvied up.

Originally, Council Member Barry Buchanan had crafted the resolution so the group also would work on the size and associated cost of the jail, but Member Ken Mann convinced the council that the size of the jail was a large topic with the potential to derail the group’s focus.

“When we think about the main point of disagreement with the city (of Bellingham), it was really around the financial arrangement for funding, how to pay for it,” Mann told fellow council members on Tuesday. “There were some issues around the size, but I think what ultimately killed it for them was the cost.”

The 2015 jail proposal as brought forward by County Executive Jack Louws and DLR Group would have built a 521-bed, pod-style jail in Ferndale that would have allowed for expansion by adding more “pods” as needed in the future.

After that size was debated, the proposal was amended so the number of beds could be scaled to how many cities participated in paying for the construction and operation of the facility.

I think we have to realistically look at what does everybody need from the jail.

Bellingham Mayor Kelli Linville

Buchanan said the reason he included size “is because it’s a multiplier on what the associated cost is going to be. ... I don’t know how this group could get there without that number being considered in some way.”

Bellingham Mayor Kelli Linville, who will be one of the designated officials on the new jail planning work group, said that she did not think that a particular size had to be the starting point of the group’s work but that she hoped the group would start the process with something to analyze.

“There was a lot of work done ahead of time, identifying different scenarios for how to pay for a jail,” Linville said in an interview.

She said she hopes to look more closely at options the city had identified, which could include using a blend of property tax and sales tax, or property tax and a fee for whoever uses the jail to pay for operations, or using sales tax but giving cities a break on what they pay to house inmates in the facility.

“And, of course, then I think we have to realistically look at what does everybody need from the jail,” Linville said. “How much do you really use the jail and for what purposes?”

Samantha Wohlfeil: 360-715-2274, @SAWohlfeil

Funding plan work group

A list of the designated officials the Whatcom County Council wants to be included in the work group:

  • Two members of the Whatcom County Council
  • Two members of the Bellingham City Council
  • One member of the Lummi Indian Business Council
  • One member of the Nooksack Tribal Council
  • Whatcom county executive
  • Mayor of Bellingham
  • One official representing the small cities
  • Whatcom County sheriff
  • Bellingham police chief
  • One Bellingham resident
  • One Whatcom County resident who lives outside of Bellingham
  • One member who already serves on the Incarceration Prevention and Reduction Task Force (to be nominated by the task force)
  • One Whatcom County corrections officer (to be nominated by the sheriff)
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