Politics Blog

Whatcom Executive offers 3 jail options to County Council

Today in Whatcom County Jail planning news: Whatcom County Executive Jack Louws has offered the County Council three potential jail options to consider.

Because the Bellingham City Council opted not to sign onto a proposed jail agreement last week, Louws met with Bellingham Mayor Kelli Linville to discuss what might win over the City Council. She recommended giving the cities a larger share of the proposed 0.2 percent sales tax increase to help them pay for public safety needs.

Louws also heard from the mayors of the Small Cities Caucus, who requested that the County Council move forward with or without Bellingham, since every other city had already signed onto the agreement to put the measure, which would add 20 cents per $100 sale, on the November ballot.

Louws’ three options, which could be discussed at 3 p.m. today, June 23, in council chambers, 311 Grand Avenue, are as follows:

1. Put the 0.2 percent sales tax increase on the ballot and amend the agreement to allow the county to build a jail with up to 521 beds, but base the actual size on each city that plans to sign on to pay for and use the jail under the new document. It appears that would allow the county to move forward with or without Bellingham.

2. Put the 0.2 percent sales tax increase on the ballot and change the agreement to incorporate Linville’s proposal for divvying up the sales tax revenue. Currently, the agreement asks the cities to give the majority of the revenue to the county for the first few years, after which the county would receive 60 percent and the cities would split 40 percent of the total amongst themselves, based on population.

Linville has proposed looking at giving the cities a larger share of half of the tax. The cities could get 85 percent of 0.1 percent of the tax, and the county would get 15 percent, as allowed by state law. All of the cash collected in unincorporated areas under that half would still go 60/40 to the county and cities, and so would all of the revenue from the other half of the increase.

In Louws’ words:

“First 0.1 percent of Sales Tax

▪  For all revenue collected within the cities, 85 percent would be retained by the cities and 15 percent would be retained by the County

▪  For all revenue collected in unincorporated areas, 40 percent retained by the Cities and 60 percent retained by the County;

Second 0.1 percent of Sales Tax

▪  For all revenue collected countywide, 40 percent would be retained by the cities distributed on a per capita bases and 60 percent would be retained by the County.”

Louws’ memo to the County Council estimates such a split would shift $71.8 million of revenue over the 32-year life of the agreement from the county to the cities.

Linville also asked the county to split the existing 0.1 percent sales tax equally among the jail’s users to offset everyone’s daily costs per inmate, instead of just the county’s daily costs. Louws estimates that would shift $35 million over 32 years from the county to the cities.

3. Don’t put the tax before the voters, and suspend action on the new jail project.

In their June 18 letter to the County Council, the small cities mayors recognized that they had similar concerns to those expressed by Linville, before they had signed the agreement.

The disagreement is not about ‘if’ there is a need for a jail, it is about ‘how’ it will be built. In its June 9th memo to Mayor Kelli Linville, City of Bellingham staff identified four specific areas of concerns: How shall costs be shared fairly? How would the City control funds be (sic) raised from its residents? How can it make certain funds are used as the City wishes? How can the City continue to have access to the Jail into the indefinite future?

You may not be aware that our Caucus had very similar concerns, and in fact rejected the proposal when Executive Louws first presented it to us earlier this year. But we agreed that a new jail needed to be built, and that we needed to support the County initiative to build one. The leadership in the Small Cities Caucus recognized that, as a provider of regional services, the County is best positioned to build that facility. It is good public policy to make that effort a success.

Somewhat to our surprise, the County Administration proved flexible in its position and willing to modify its proposal to allay our greatest concerns. We disagreed over some issues - and still do. But we agreed that the alternative - not building a new jail - is not an option. So we compromised, which we believe is in the best interest of all our residents.”

Louws recommends the County Council moves forward with the first option, and said he does not support option two or three.

His office has prepared a new resolution for consideration at the 7 p.m. regular council meeting that could put the tax on the November ballot per option one.

Readers can expect an update once the County Council has considered the options.

Reach Samantha Wohlfeil at 360-715-2274 or samantha.wohlfeil@bellinghamherald.com.