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Whatcom jail measure heads to November ballot

County council sought balance between rehabilitation, incarceration

Protesters yell as speakers recount each time a new jail was rejected by voters in past elections as nearly 100 people showed up to demonstrate outside Whatcom County Courthouse Tuesday
Protesters yell as speakers recount each time a new jail was rejected by voters in past elections as nearly 100 people showed up to demonstrate outside Whatcom County Courthouse Tuesday
By Ralph Schwartz Local Government Reporter

Whatcom County voters will decide in November whether to create a revenue stream amounting to hundreds of millions of dollars over the next 30 years, to build a larger jail and provide services for those at risk of incarceration: people experiencing homelessness, substance use disorder or mental illness.

The county council voted 5–0 on Tuesday, July 11, to place a 0.2% sales tax on the Nov. 7 ballot. The tax will cost shoppers an additional 20 cents on every $100 purchase.

Council member Kathy Kershner did not attend Tuesday’s meeting due to a health emergency, but council member Carol Frazey said she “is fully supportive of our ordinance.” Council member Todd Donovan abstained from voting. 

“We are not going to be able to achieve a perfect solution,” county Executive Satpal Sidhu said prior to Tuesday’s vote. “We simply don’t have resources. The proposed ordinance strikes a balance. It is a great compromise.”

Similar jail measures have failed over the past decade.

photo  In front of the Whatcom County Courthouse, Sophia Rey, who is on the Immigration Advisory Board to the Bellingham City Council, speaks to protesters. (Andy Bronson/Cascadia Daily News)  

Voters narrowly defeated a $125 million proposal to build a 521-bed jail in 2015. A slightly smaller, slightly cheaper proposal in 2017 faced an organized “no” campaign by Whatcom Democrats and lost by 17 percentage points. 

“This proposal is strikingly different than previous proposals,” Sidhu said before Tuesday’s vote. “The development process was very different and was centered around extensive community input over 18 months.” 

Council member Barry Buchanan, who took the lead on the effort to place the jail measure on the ballot a third time, said they spent a year meeting with 39 people in the stakeholder advisory committee to identify gaps in the current services available in the county.

“I feel really good about voting yes this time because I think the public process was very engaging, and I think we’ve come up with a lot of good alternative services that are going to go alongside just building a jail,” said Buchanan, who voted “no” on the previous two measures in 2015 and 2017. 

This year’s measure is designed to invest heavily in behavioral care services, but only after a large majority of the tax receipts over the next four to six years go toward paying down the bond that will fund construction of the new jail. 

County officials also anticipate building a behavioral care center with a few dozen beds for offenders who qualify for mental health or substance use treatment instead of lockup. The care center would be built adjacent to the jail, on a 40-acre property on LaBounty Road in Ferndale.

The jail’s final size and cost haven’t been determined, although the mayors of the seven cities in Whatcom County have asked for a jail large enough to remove jail booking restrictions that currently keep many suspected criminals out of jail. 

The cities have leverage as they make this request because they get 40% of the revenue from the new sales tax. County officials would like to spend the city’s share on debt payments in those initial four to six years.

Given the pressure from the mayors, voters can expect a jail with more than 440 beds. County officials gave a rough estimate of $137 million for the cost of a 440-bed jail at the Ferndale site.

Audra Anderson contributed to the reporting of this story.

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