Whatcom jail proposal leaves voters with questions

State lawmakers pledge funds for social services
August 6, 2023 at 5:00 a.m.
Panels peel from the ceiling of the Whatcom County Jail in November 2022. Voters will be asked this November to approve a sales tax to fund replacing the current jail on Central Avenue in downtown Bellingham. Details about how the money will be spent won't be available until after ballots are counted.
Panels peel from the ceiling of the Whatcom County Jail in November 2022. Voters will be asked this November to approve a sales tax to fund replacing the current jail on Central Avenue in downtown Bellingham. Details about how the money will be spent won't be available until after ballots are counted. (Hailey Hoffman/Cascadia Daily News)

Staff Reporter

Come November, Whatcom County residents will vote on a proposed sales tax increase to fund a new jail and behavioral health services meant to keep people out of jail.

If approved, the proposed countywide 0.2% tax would add 20 cents to a $100 retail purchase and would generate an estimated $14.4 million in 2025, the first full year it would be collected. 

How will that money be spent?

This simple question comes with no definitive answers, and voters won’t exactly know what they’re deciding on, when they cast their ballots by Nov. 7. Cost estimates and size are still be be determined. Those specifics were spelled out in previous jail bond measures, in 2015 and 2017.

And in spite of increasing urgency, due to the poor conditions inside the deteriorating downtown jail, officials said they had no time to work up a jail design and estimated cost. 

They also said it would be more prudent to focus on social services first, then determine the new jail's size. State legislators who represent Whatcom County last week pledged support for the behavioral health opportunities that will be built in addition to a new jail.

The upcoming ballot measure was delayed by two years, at least, due to COVID-19 pandemic shutdowns. Even so, some critics perceive the jail planning process as rushed.

Spreading the wealth

Armed with spreadsheets, county officials do have a story to tell about how the tax revenue will be spent. But their story relies on assumptions that are far from certain, and on financial agreements between the county and its seven cities that have yet to be inked.

Jail proponents say sales tax receipts will be divided between incarceration and rehabilitation — that is, between social services and payments on a bond county officials will issue to fund the construction of the jail. Included in the construction cost is an adjacent behavioral care center with a few dozen beds for offenders who qualify for mental health or substance use treatment instead of lockup. A new sheriff’s office would not be part of the jail compound.

Numbers have been tossed around by government leaders and the media: a 440-cell jail on LaBounty Drive in Ferndale, with a cost estimate of $137 million.

But those numbers aren’t real, especially compared to the 2015 and 2017 proposals that included design details down to the number of spaces in the jail parking lot. 

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

This year, 440 beds wasn’t a proposal but only a starting point for a thumbnail estimate of jail cost. This number of beds is about 20% above the combined capacity of the existing downtown jail and the Interim Work Center for low-risk inmates on Division Street, in Bellingham’s Irongate neighborhood.

The $137 million figure came not from a detailed jail design but from crude assumptions about square footage and the number of floors in the jail.

While it was never intended as a cost estimate for a fully designed jail, the pro-jail political action committee, called “Yes! Safe Jail, Healthy Outcomes,” appears to base its $150 million jail cost estimate on that number, while accounting for inflation given a projected 2026 construction date.

City mayors in Whatcom County want a jail large enough to avoid existing booking restrictions and address the backlog of outstanding warrants. Whatcom County Sheriff’s Office and Bellingham Police Department records show several thousand outstanding warrants, according to department representatives.

“We’re all on booking restrictions, and crime is becoming a problem because we don’t have the deterrent (of incarceration) available,” Lynden Mayor Scott Korthuis said.

The current jail population hovers around 330, between the downtown jail and the Work Center. The sheriff's office on July 31 reported 179 offenders in the downtown jail, which has a capacity of 148.

Officials believe 440 beds won’t be enough to lift booking restrictions, but a specific number isn’t known.

“We feel it would not be wise to specify the size of the facility,” the county’s seven city mayors wrote in a June 6 letter to the Whatcom County Council. Rather, they said, it would be appropriate “to size the facility based on demand and need.”

Jail planners did not take the time over the past couple of years to determine demand and need and then design a jail of a certain size.

“There was just no time to get all this done,” Korthuis said. “We focused on getting [a proposal] we can all live with, and we will take care of the details as time allows.”

Planning for the 2023 ballot measure began in January 2022. Most of that time was spent assessing the county’s needs for mental health and substance use treatment, and for housing assistance and other services — all ways to help people stabilize their lives and stay out of jail.

About half the people in Whatcom County’s jail were diagnosed with a serious mental illness in a recent survey. About 80% to 85% “have some issues with substance abuse,” county Corrections Chief Wendy Jones has said.

Agreement needed

The councils of all seven cities — Bellingham, Blaine, Everson, Ferndale, Lynden, Nooksack and Sumas — must agree to sales tax revenue-sharing deals with the county by June 2024. Of that $14.4 million expected in 2025, 40%, or $5.8 million, would go to the cities, with the other 60% going into a dedicated county fund for the jail and behavioral health care. 

The county wants the cities to hand over most of their share of the money, to enable the county to put a large down payment on the jail in order to lower future interest payments and leave more money in future decades for social services.

This means that the services intended to keep people out of jail will get relatively little funding in the first four to six years of the sales tax. After that period, the county is obligated to spend at least 50% of the sales tax on social services.

An outline for that spending can be found in a 118-page implementation plan.

To visualize future spending, county officials have been plugging numbers into spreadsheets. They only offer a window into jail planners’ financial imaginations. Again, the numbers aren’t real.

One spreadsheet assumes the cities contribute half of their sales tax to the county — an amount Korthuis says he’s comfortable with. In that scenario, the county pays $12 million annually toward the jail debt through 2028, with another $2 million a year going to social services — all contributed by the City of Bellingham. 

A few members of jail planning committees have been harshly critical of the near-term use of the sales tax, given that a majority of the money would pay for jail construction rather than services. But the county executive’s spreadsheets point to as much as $8.9 million in annual spending on services through 2030, from local, state and federal sources. 

None of that money is certain, although five of the six state lawmakers who represent Whatcom County signed a letter saying they would do what they could to fund social services in the implementation plan.

"We are full and enthusiastic partners in funding projects that reduce the need for incarceration," the legislators' Aug. 3 letter said. The letter addressed to the county executive and council was signed by representatives Debra Lekanoff, Alex Ramel and Joe Timmons, along with state senators Liz Lovelett and Sharon Shewmake.

The sixth lawmaker, Rep. Alicia Rule, did not sign the letter because she is running for county executive and "can't use state resources for publicity," Ramel said.

"I've talked to her about these priorities many times, and I know she is a fully engaged member of our team on this," he said.

Even though a more robust plan for social services is in place, compared to the 2015 and 2017 jail measures, critics maintain the planning process has been rushed.

 Andrew Reding, chair of the Whatcom Democrats, said the 2023 ballot measure “denies critical information to voters.”

“In the rush to get something on the ballot this year, the county executive and council have unwisely bypassed important preliminaries,” Reding said, including “a true facilities study” and a new study that would help county officials understand how to lower the jail population.

The county should already have “signed financial agreements with the cities,” Reding added.

The county is consciously taking a different approach in 2023, compared to 2015 and 2017, said Jed Holmes, county Executive Satpal Sidhu’s public information officer.

“For previous ballot propositions, an enormous effort went into developing the details of the proposed facility,” Holmes said. “Each time, we heard that the proposal was rejected because the underlying priorities were not aligned with the priorities of the community.” 

“This time, the focus has been on striving to identify the community’s priorities and bringing forward a plan that matches those priorities,” Holmes added. “If we’ve gotten the priorities right, and we have a good system of checks and balances, we’re going to be able to get the details right as well.”

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