Local Election

Some say a new jail is needed. Others not sold on the idea. It’s up to the voters now

Handcuffs hang from a rack at Whatcom County Jail on Tuesday, July 21, 2015, in Bellingham. The jail measure goes before the voters Nov. 7.
Handcuffs hang from a rack at Whatcom County Jail on Tuesday, July 21, 2015, in Bellingham. The jail measure goes before the voters Nov. 7. eabell@bhamherald.com

Whatcom County voters are being asked Nov. 7 – for the second time in two years – to approve a two-tenths of 1 percent sales tax to fund a new jail.

Such a tax means shoppers would pay 20 cents of every $100 spent on non-food purchases toward the 480-bed jail, until the tax ends in 2048.

A nearly identical proposal failed 51.4 percent to 48.6 percent in November 2015, losing by 1,661 votes out of 58,301 votes cast countywide, and without the support of the Bellingham City Council.

But this time around, all seven cities in Whatcom County have endorsed a financing agreement for the plan, which calls for a 480-bed criminal justice facility in a complex of buildings located near Slater Road and Interstate 5 in Ferndale.

Its cost could surpass $110 million. The funding mechanism includes assurances for jail alternative programs and for on-site medical and mental health treatment.

In 2015, the Bellingham City Council refused to endorse the funding plan when it was on the ballot. But the City Council agreed in July 2017 to support the measure just as the Whatcom County Council readied a vote to place the funding request on the ballot.

Supporters fear overcrowding, safety and other issues from the main jail that opened in 1984 and now has a cap of 212 inmates.

On Oct. 23, 2017, the main jail held 182 offenders, said Wendy Jones, chief corrections deputy. Another 103 people were held at the minimum security work center in the Irongate industrial area of Bellingham and 19 people were on electronic home detention on Oct. 23, Jones said. The Irongate work center, built in 2006, can hold 150 people.

Between the two jail facilities and alternative programs, there’s been an average daily population of 324 people under supervision from Jan. 1 to Oct. 21, 2017, Jones said.

Little has changed at the main jail since The Bellingham Herald reported in 2015 that inmates have picked away at the grout in their cinder block walls, creating small pass-throughs from cell to cell; sewer lines have backed up into the sheriff’s office; and nearly every space, including shower rooms and indoor recreation areas, has been used to house inmates at one time or another as the population has fluctuated well beyond capacity.

It’s been called a fire and earthquake hazard, in addition to a health hazard, and Whatcom County Sheriff Bill Elfo, whose department is in charge of jail operations, has called the current facility “inhumane.”

An October 2016 report by the Edmonds firm design2LAST Inc. cited 12 major issues with the current jail, including overcapacity concerns at both the main facility and the work center. Other criticisms are lack of a ventilation system for smoke in case of fire, poor sight lines for corrections officers in the housing units, and lack of an inmate holding area in the courts. A complete remodeling of the main jail would cost more than $30 million, the design2LASTreport indicated.

Detractors criticize the new jail proposal’s size, cost, and its location away from the Whatcom County seat in Bellingham where courts, county prosecutors and sheriff’s officials have offices. Other opponents want additional alternatives to incarceration, such as mental health treatment, programs addressing homelessness and drug addiction, and more home detention for low-risk offenders.

The proposed site of a new Whatcom County Jail is on LaBounty Drive north of Slater Road in Ferndale. Staff The Bellingham Herald file

The county’s Democratic Party recently voted overwhelmingly against the current jail tax proposal.

“This will take 100 percent of the public safety dollars for the next 30 years,” said Barbara Lewis, chairwoman of Whatcom Democrats. “If the jail goes over budget, there will be no extra funds for treatment and alternatives.”

Lewis cited a recent report form the Vera Institute of Justice that said Whatcom County must examine the social issues that put more people in jail.

“Any attempt to ease overcrowding by building a new facility or expanding the current one will not address the underlying causes of population growth, and the new facility will quickly become overcrowded,” the July 2017 report indicated.

In addition, Lewis said too many low-income people remain in jail because they can’t afford bail while awaiting trial.

“Whatcom Democrats want to help come up with a better solution,” Lewis said. “It doesn’t need to be rushed.”

With Whatcom Democrats and other progressives opposing the measure, the Whatcom Republicans join those urging approval.

A panel of residents and government officials have been discussing the jail and its funding method for nearly a year and their proposal reached the County Council for a vote just weeks before the Aug. 1 deadline to make the fall ballot.

Carl Weimer, a County Council member who voted to place the jail measure on the ballot, said remodeling the current facility is impractical.

“We could spend $30-40 million to correct the current code deficiencies and address other health and safety concerns, but after spending that money we would still not have a jail that meets the needs that every group that has looked at the jail wants,” Weimer wrote in a recent online blog post.

“This oft-repeated ‘just fix the current jail’ idea does not seem like a responsible solution to me, and spending tens of millions of dollars on such a poor temporary fix also leaves us holding the bag for the ever-increasing cost of a real long-term solution,” Weimer wrote.

Whatcom County officials are considering again whether to ask voters to approve money to build a new, larger jail.

County Council members voted 4-3 in July to place the measure on the ballot “for public safety purposes, including the costs associated with financing, construction, maintenance, and operation of jail facilities, and incarceration prevention programs, including medical and behavioral health facilities and programs.” Council members Ken Mann, Todd Donovan and Barry Buchanan were opposed.

Not all County Council members said they agreed with the entire plan, but a majority felt the need for a new jail was critical, and waiting any longer would only increase the cost and complicate the project.

“This issue is not only about incarceration. This issue is about the justice system,” County Council member Satpal Sidhu said in July. “But I think this (measure) is something I can live with.”

“Our criminal justice system as a nation is flawed,” Mann said in July, calling it “irresponsible” to seek another ballot measure.

Donovan predicted that voters again would reject the measure.

Some foes of the proposal say the sales tax is “regressive,” meaning it hits harder at people of lower and middle incomes, and would prefer a property tax instead.

Others say the proposal doesn’t include enough specifics about jail alternatives such as home monitoring and work release, as well as treatment programs for those who break the law because of mental health, drug abuse or homelessness.

But everyone agrees that maintaining the status quo is impossible.

“I can no longer operate the jail under those conditions,” Elfo said following the defeat of the measure in 2015. “It’s not only inhumane to the people who live there, it’s unsafe and it’s unsanitary to the people that work there. We have to change that and bring it to an acceptable level of service.”

Robert Mittendorf: 360-756-2805, @BhamMitty