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After years of waiting, approval of jail measure means … more waiting

New Whatcom County facility to open in 2028 at the earliest

A photo through the window looking into where inmates are kept. There are phones on the walls on the right, a table with chairs in the center, and red stairways that lead to the green doors hosting cells.
Whatcom County officials are likely to propose a November ballot measure that would fund construction of a new jail. County leaders cite inhumane conditions in the existing downtown jail, located next to the courthouse. (Hailey Hoffman/Cascadia Daily News)
By Ralph Schwartz Staff Reporter

After eight years of trying, proponents of a new Whatcom County Jail finally have something to celebrate: voter approval of a sales tax hike to build the jail and provide other services, by a surprising margin of almost 2-to-1.

“Through the hard work of a variety of civic leaders, we finally put a plan out there that the citizens of Whatcom County appear to like very much,” Lynden Mayor Scott Korthuis said.

So what comes next? In the near term, even more waiting.

The measure’s assessment of an additional 0.2% sales tax on purchases in the county, or 20 cents on every $100, will start in July 2024. But a new jail won’t open until 2028 at the earliest, county officials say. And it could take even longer than that.

“It’s likely that some aspect of the process will turn out to be more complicated than anticipated, and the timeline will be extended,” said Jed Holmes, public information officer for county Executive Satpal Sidhu.

In the next several months of the new tax, or even the first couple years, the public might not see much change in public safety or behavioral health care — both touted as advantages of the measure’s passage. And for the next four-plus years, at least, the community will need to make do with a jail that officials say is too small and is unsafe for both inmates and corrections officers.

Unlike past jail proposals, this one went to the voters without a meaningful design or cost estimate for the facility. Officials have been tossing around some figures: 440 beds at a cost of $150 million, but they also don’t expect those numbers to be final.

The jail likely will need to house more than 440 to meet city leaders’ demands for a jail large enough to lift booking restrictions, county officials have said. Mayors from the county’s seven cities sent a letter on June 6 to the county council asking for a trigger that would expand the new jail if certain benchmarks are met. That trigger was included in the final jail proposal.

Currently, the sheriff’s office isn’t booking people suspected of nonviolent misdemeanors because the downtown jail and the Interim Work Center on Division Street have no room for them. 

The two jails combined have a capacity of 359, and the jail population hovers around 315, which is close to the facilities’ operational capacity of 85%.

What are the next steps?

Design, then build

County and city officials, including law enforcement representatives, will spend the next two years coming up with a design for the new jail.

“Maybe some outside voices, too, to make sure we have a balance — the citizen voice,” Korthuis said.

The new jail might break ground in 2026.

“We’ll have some sort of preliminary design phase first, so you know what you have to go out to bid with,” county council Chairperson Barry Buchanan said on Wednesday, Nov. 8. “I envision that happening in the first couple of quarters of 2024, to figure out what it looks like.”

Also in the first half of next year, county leaders must reach agreements with all seven cities in the county over how to share the new sales tax.

The county government will collect 60% of the tax, with the rest divvied up among the cities.

So far, officials at the county and in Bellingham, Blaine, Everson, Ferndale, Lynden, Nooksack and Sumas agree in principle on a plan to have the cities give half of their new sales tax revenue to the county for the next four to six years, to help pay down the jail debt, Korthuis said. 

Bellingham officials have committed to putting the other half of their share — about $2 million a year — toward social services.

After four to six years of spending most of the tax revenue on the new jail, the county is obligated to spend at least half of its money on services. By that time, the small cities would keep their tax revenues for their own public safety needs — hiring more police officers, for example. 

‘The services side’

Buchanan and other leaders are already outlining a plan for spending the money that will be available for behavioral health services. 

“I’m anxious to get that group thinking about the services side, and how that intersects with the whole process,” Buchanan said.

A priority list the group compiled before the election includes a 23-hour crisis center, which already received $9 million in state funding. The center will have no overnight beds but will take people in extreme crisis due to substance use or mental illness, as an alternative to the jail or emergency room.

For now, the sheriff’s office must make do with the existing jail.

Whatcom County Undersheriff Doug Chadwick, who is currently trailing Blaine Police Chief Donnell Tanksley in the race to become the next sheriff, said Tuesday, Nov. 7 he would take steps to reduce the current jail population or make more room in existing facilities, if elected.

Chadwick proposed seeking contracts with other counties to house some of Whatcom County’s inmates, and expanding the Interim Work Center to hold more inmates.

He emphasized the importance of re-establishing a sense of safety in the community, especially given recent rises in crime, homelessness and visible drug use in Bellingham.

“We just don’t have the room to hold people accountable,” Chadwick said. “That’s creating a lot of the issues with what we’re seeing in the streets of Bellingham.”

Tanksley said he would meet with the county’s top corrections officer to determine how to manage the existing jail in the short term.

“For me, (it’s about) coming in and really listening first, before making any drastic moves,” he said.

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