Politics Blog

County pursues a jail plan that could cut Bellingham out

Whatcom County could build a smaller, less expensive jail under a proposal accepted Tuesday night, June 23, by the County Council.

Council voted 4-3 to put a bond measure on the Nov. 3 ballot that would finance construction of a new jail in south Ferndale with a 0.2 percent sales tax. How big that jail is depends on how many of the county’s seven cities commit to helping pay for the jail in return for guaranteed bed space.

A majority of the council followed the recommendation of county Executive Jack Louws, who took his cue from small city mayors. The mayors had requested the county move forward with its plans to build a new jail, whether or not Bellingham agrees to the financial terms.

Bellingham is the only city among the seven that had not signed onto a plan to pay for construction of a $97 million, 521 bed jail on 39 acres at Sunset Avenue and LaBounty Drive in Ferndale. The agreement required all seven cities to accept it before it could become valid.

Bellingham’s counterproposal would enable the cities to keep more of the 0.2 percent sales tax increase the voters will be asked to approve in November. They would also get a cut of the 0.1 percent sales tax approved by voters in 2004. Under this plan, the county would pay $3.2 million more per year out of pocket for jail construction and operations.

“We’re not going to be able to build a new jail at 521 beds under that model. We just are flat out not going to be able to make that work,” Louws told council members at a Tuesday afternoon meeting.

Rather than take more time trying to compromise with Bellingham over cost sharing on the jail, council opted in a close vote to take the original agreement, the one with more sales tax money coming to the county, to each of the seven cities individually.

County officials expect the six small cities to recommit to the agreement. A letter dated Thursday, June 18, from the Small City Caucus to council Chairman Carl Weimer suggested council take the very step they took, which “allows the county the latitude to proceed without Bellingham,” as the small cities’ letter says.

Voting to put the sales tax hike on the November ballot, and to rewrite the agreement so it doesn’t require Bellingham’s approval, were council members Barbara Brenner, Rud Browne, Pete Kremen and Satpal Sidhu. Opposed were Barry Buchanan, Ken Mann and Weimer.

County Council will receive the slightly rewritten version of the jail agreement for its approval on July 7, after which it will be sent to the seven cities for approval.

Bellingham would use roughly 100 beds in the new jail, so without Bellingham’s participation, the jail could have around 400 beds and cost about $70 million to build, Louws said.

“We can scale the project back based on who wants to contribute and who wants to participate,” Louws said. “That is a pretty clear mathematical formula that I’m very convinced that we’re going to be able to turn around.”