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CDN endorses: ‘Yes’ on Prop 4, Whatcom County Jail/services tax

It’s the first, best exit off the road to a humanitarian crisis

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 CDN Editorial Board

Proposition 4, the sales tax increase to provide what amounts to long-term financing for a new Whatcom County Jail facility and other diversion and behavioral health programs, is arguably the most contentious matter placed before voters in the 2023 general election.

The Cascadia Daily News Editorial Board believes the tax, although offered in a plan lacking jail-construction specifics to a degree that risks confusing or alienating voters, merits approval. A “yes” vote is the best and perhaps only way to stave off a mounting humanitarian crisis with the old jail in downtown Bellingham, already an embarrassment due to its dilapidated, cramped facilities.

What could be wrong with a plan that puts 20 cents for every $100 spent in the county in a pot to fund a new “justice center” style jail facility, as well as provide potentially hundreds of millions of dollars for diversion and treatment services over 30 years?

Nothing, if it’s being presented to a group of government policy wonks at a convention. The funding mechanism, albeit via a regressive tax, is reasonable, wisely flexible, and developed after wide-ranging public input. But red flags fly when voters are asked to tax themselves and then essentially trust the government to follow through on a promise to spend money appropriately.

A visible “yes” campaign on the jail/services measure has been largely absent throughout the election season to date. This may be partially due to legal restrictions that prevent elected officials, the measure’s biggest fans, from openly campaigning for it. But the limp effort hasn’t helped educate or enthuse potentially supportive voters. Nor has it served to ease lingering voter suspicion, much of that based on a previous 0.1% sale tax increase approved with a similar promise in 2004 to eventually build a new jail. (Most of the money went to help the old one limp along.) 

The vague nature of the measure may prove a tremendous burden for passage, given the propensity for many to vote “no” even on a specific jail proposal. But wise voters should focus on the critical basics:

• While it’s not specified in the proposal, broad agreement exists among public officials both in county government and, now, among mayors of the county’s seven cities, that collected tax money will be the basis for selling somewhere around $150 million in bonds to build a new jail and behavioral treatment facility, with a capacity of roughly 450, plus additional treatment, diversion and transition services. The facility is likely to be built on existing county property on LaBounty Road, in south Ferndale.

• An even greater beneficiary of a likely growing pot of collected tax dollars will be — eventually — a range of behavioral treatment programs designed to interrupt and prevent recidivism, and even combat homelessness. (Over the initial four to six years of the tax, most of the proceeds would go to the jail project. But the percentage of collected money devoted to the other programs would grow steadily over time, as tax proceeds increase while jail bond payments remain flat.)

This fund would yield a facility large enough to keep dangerous criminals locked up, and be flexible enough to grow with future needs. It would create the long-needed local funding source for programs that move offenders from incarceration to rehabilitation.

The primary remaining argument against the tax by opponents on the left is that a larger jail, or in fact any new jail, enables unjust mass incarceration. But as one of many guest writers on the subject stated succinctly in a CDN guest commentary: “Defunding Whatcom County’s jail is not a realistic approach to criminal justice reform.” We agree.

The jail is an emergency. It is our belief that no voter able to spend time inside the current building would walk away believing that it is a humane facility reflecting the community values of Whatcom County residents. It is reasonable to assume that the same facility housing orphaned dogs and cats in Whatcom County would spark regular mass protests.

In spite of baggage attached to it by prior failures in 2015 and 2017, the current tax measure is the best near-term solution. Even with passage, it’s likely to be at least five years before a new facility comes online. With rejection, no timeline exists.

One important caveat on voter trust in this proposal, if approved: While guard rails against improper spending are built-in, local citizens — and media organizations, like our own — will bear responsibility to bird-dog the process for years to come, ensuring that promises are kept. That’s doable, and it’s the public’s best option in the face of an emergency. 

Don’t let valid disdain for the messengers here obliterate the message, which is vital. A “yes” vote is the responsible choice.

Editor’s note: The jail bond has been subject to intense community debate for months. For valuable background reporting, please see CDN’s special report, Beyond Bars, from March. Also find a broad array of guest commentaries on the subject.

CDN endorsements are made by consensus of the CDN Editorial Board: Publisher Cynthia Pope and Executive Editor Ron Judd. Dean Wright, the newspaper’s ethics consultant, acts as a nonvoting adviser and facilitator. Look for endorsements for the county executive, county council at-large, Whatcom County sheriff and Bellingham mayor, online this week and in a special Voter Guide published on Oct. 13. Read more about the endorsement process here.

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