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Whatcom County seeks input on new jail

Survey asks public to weigh in on services for inmates

The side of Whatcom county jail as a car drives by.
The Whatcom County Jail has been overcapacity since 1989, five years after it opened. Ballot measures that would have funded a new county jail have failed twice in the past eight years. (Ron Judd/Cascadia Daily News)
By Ralph Schwartz Staff Reporter

Sales tax measures that would have funded construction of a new jail in Whatcom County have failed twice since 2015, and county leaders don’t want to get it wrong a third time.

That’s why the county’s Stakeholder Advisory Committee (SAC) is asking for public input on what should be included in a new jail project. The county intends to put yet another bond measure on the ballot in November 2023.

The SAC has been meeting since January with an eye to incorporating services in a new jail for inmates with mental illness or substance use disorder. The committee is also looking at ways to provide help and stability for people before they are arrested and booked into jail, in order to reduce inmate numbers. The county might also invest in new programs to help inmates find housing, education or employment after they are released.

The SAC is asking the public to complete a 15-minute online survey about the proposed new jail at whatcomjusticeproject.org by Nov. 18. People are also invited to attend a town hall listening session on the new jail at 6 p.m. Nov. 15 in County Council chambers, 311 Grand Ave., Bellingham. The public may also attend remotely via Zoom. Information on how to join the meeting online can be found at whatcomcounty.us

The survey includes questions about how safe people feel in the community and the programs a new jail might offer. 

The SAC is evaluating three sites for the new jail: adjacent to the county courthouse, next to the minimum security Work Center in the Irongate neighborhood, and a 40-acre site in Ferndale the county purchased in 2013 as the intended location for a new jail.

Proposals to build a new jail on the Ferndale property, at costs exceeding $100 million, failed on the ballot in 2015 and 2017. During an SAC meeting in September, county Deputy Executive Tyler Schroeder pegged a rough and conservative estimate of current construction costs at $150 million.

If voters approve jail construction in 2023, the new facility wouldn’t open for at least another five years, county officials have said.

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