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UPDATE: Jail measure heads for ‘decisive win’ after past failures

Proposal will create new sales tax

Panels peel from the ceiling of the Whatcom County Jail as a security guard walks by the blue and green doors.
Panels peel from the ceiling of the Whatcom County Jail in November 2022. A sales tax to pay for a new jail and social services was passing by a wide margin as of Wednesday, Nov. 8. (Hailey Hoffman/Cascadia Daily News)
By Ralph Schwartz Staff Reporter

The third time was a charm. 

A sales tax to pay for a new Whatcom County jail and social services was passing by a wide margin after the Wednesday, Nov. 8 ballot count. 

Proposition 4 had 66% yes votes to 34% no votes Wednesday. Thousands of ballots across the county remain to be counted, but a margin this wide is all but insurmountable. 

It was the third jail measure Whatcom County had put before voters since 2015.  

The 2015 plan was for a 521-bed jail at a cost of $125 million. After voters rejected that proposal, county leaders came back in 2017 with 480 beds and a $110 million price tag. Voters rejected this smaller, cheaper jail even more resoundingly. 

“When it was down to the wire, Whatcom voters came through,” said Peter Frazier, who is on the Yes! Safe Jail, Healthy Outcomes campaign committee. 

Frazier declared the vote a “decisive win” for all of Whatcom County but especially for “those among us who are incarcerated, and those struggling with mental illness and drug addiction.” 

“We now will be able to build a humane jail and on-site treatment center, and properly address our county’s critical criminal justice and behavioral health issues,” Frazier said. 

The county will begin collecting a 0.2% sales tax on retail goods and services in July 2024, adding 20 cents to a $100 purchase. This amounts to an estimated $14 million a year initially, to make payments on a construction bond for a new jail likely in Ferndale, with additional money going to mental health, substance use disorder and housing services. 

Many specifics about the jail are still undecided, including size, cost and design. County officials have said they will determine those after the bond cost is better known, and they have a better idea of what the county can afford. Officials have reported rough estimates: $150 million to build a jail with 440 single-occupancy cells. 

In addition to the jail payments, sales tax revenues collected in Bellingham and the unincorporated county will go toward behavioral health needs outlined in a jail implementation plan approved earlier this year. Among other things, the plan calls for a behavioral-health treatment center to be built alongside the jail, and a 23-hour crisis relief center. The plan also includes enhanced re-entry services for people released from jail and expanded housing programs for people with behavioral health issues and a history of incarceration. 

Jail backers have said a larger facility is needed so the sheriff can lift booking restrictions that keep some suspected criminals on the streets. Sheriff Bill Elfo has called the existing jail inhumane and unconstitutional. Cascadia Daily News published an in-depth report on the jail conditions in March 2023. 

This story was updated at 5:35 p.m. Wednesday, Nov. 8 with the results of a second ballot count.

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