Whatcom County voters appear to have soundly rejected a ballot measure to create a two-tenths of 1 percent sales tax to fund a new jail, early returns Tuesday night showed.
Proposition 2017-6 was failing by a margin of 57.77 percent to 42.23 percent, according to the returns released by the Whatcom County Auditor’s Office. The unofficial ballot count was 24,576 votes against and 17,968 votes for the measure.
An updated vote total will be released at 5 p.m. Wednesday, according to the auditor’s website.
An estimated 5,000 ballots are left to be counted, but most observers felt the issue has been decided.
“I’m deeply relieved and just a little bit surprised,” said Doug Starcher, a jail opponent who helped write the opposition statement on the voter information pamphlet. “It’s time for comprehensive reform in our system.”
Whatcom County Sheriff Bill Elfo said the county will move quickly to strengthen security and safety at the existing jail and listen to jail opponents who sought alternatives to incarceration.
“I advocated for what I thought was needed for the community,” Elfo said Tuesday night. “(But) the voters have spoken. We’ll do our best to follow the Constitution and the law with what we have.”
Elfo said short-term measures likely would include housing more inmates at locations outside Whatcom County.
“That’s not ideal, either, when we separate inmates from their families and their support system,” he said.
Whatcom County Council members voted 4-3 to place the measure on the ballot. A majority felt the need for a new jail was critical, and waiting any longer would only increase the projected $110 million cost and complicate the project.
A nearly identical proposal narrowly failed 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 Bellingham agreed in July 2017 to support the measure, meaning all seven cities in Whatcom County have endorsed a financing agreement for the plan, which called for a 480-bed criminal justice facility in a complex of buildings near Ferndale.
Whatcom County Executive Jack Louws reached out to those who campaigned against the measure.
“It’s an issue that’s been very contentious in the community,” Louws said. “It’s time for those that weren’t on board to step forward with what their solution is going to be. I’m willing to listen to them and let them be the leaders.”
Lisa McShane of the Whatcom Democrats credited the wide margin of votes against the jail tax to a combination of voter turnout efforts, door-to-door discussions with voters and an online campaign.
“We had a really strong ground game,” McShane said. “People wanted to see a better solution.”
The votes will be certified Nov. 28.