Guest commentaries

Jail tax: Plenty of practical reasons to vote 'no'

Too big, too costly, wrong place — start over
October 18, 2023 at 5:00 a.m.

By Josh Cerretti, Guest Writer

People across Whatcom County are beginning to educate themselves on Proposition 4, the jail tax on this November’s ballot. For those of us who successfully voted similar jail taxes down in 2015 and 2017, this is once again too big a tax for too big a jail in a bad location.

Too big a tax: We already pay a 0.1% sales tax on every purchase in Whatcom County to support incarceration and now our elected officials want to triple that tax, increasing it to the maximum allowed under state law and locking us into at least 30 years of this higher rate. After years of record inflation, poor and working people can’t afford this kind of regressive tax that burdens those with the least spending money the most. A more modest increase could fund increased services and rehabilitation of the current jail, but voters will not have that option because our elected officials are committed to the same plans they had in 2015 and 2017.

Too big a jail: Our elected officials are committed to dramatically increasing the number of people who live behind bars in Whatcom County. More than 90% of people held in the jail are pre-trial, meaning they have not been convicted of a crime, but more cells will do nothing to help with backlogs in competency restoration, public defenders and other bottlenecks in the criminal legal system. While incarceration prevention and reduction efforts have been successful at keeping the population in jail manageable in recent years, city mayors have endorsed a perpetual jail-building policy in which taxpayers will be automatically responsible for expanding the jail every time it reaches 85% capacity. The desire to have an endlessly expandable facility drove the county to seek a large and flat location to enable modular construction — a fatal flaw of this proposal.

Bad location: The proposed LaBounty Drive location for the new jail is a green space ringed by wetlands that is prone to flooding as it sits in the historical delta of the Nooksack River. This specific location also raises concerns about its historical significance in relation to the Tennant homestead and environmental risks from its historic use as the charnel yard for a tannery. Quite simply, the county shouldn’t allow any development on this land and certainly shouldn’t consider housing people in this high-risk area. Furthermore, moving the jail seven miles from the courthouse creates a whole slew of technical and environmental issues from the complications of transporting individuals for court hearings to the increased congestion on Interstate 5 and pressure on parking downtown that it will cause.

For these reasons and more, I’ll be voting “no” on Proposition 4 this November. Politicians should have heeded the message sent by the voters’ narrow rejection of this plan in 2015 and decisive rejection in 2017. Whatcom County officials need to carefully consider what we actually need in terms of safety and care, then figure out how to fund it in a way that doesn’t press down harder on people already struggling to get by in this increasingly unaffordable region. In doing so, we must hold to our aspirations in terms of equity, conservation and stewardship.

Given the real threats to public safety that have emerged in recent years, investments in affordable housing, public health and climate resilience will yield much better returns than a jumbo jail in Ferndale stuffed with people awaiting trial. When voters again reject this proposal in November, I hope our officials will finally hear our message and begin sincerely working on viable alternatives they can bring to the public to support the flourishing of everyone who lives in Whatcom County.

Josh Cerretti is the board secretary of the Whatcom Peace and Justice Center, a delegate to the NW Washington Central Labor Council, and a history professor at Western Washington University. Affiliations are for informational purposes only and do not imply endorsement.

Editor's Note: With most relevant issues previously explored, CDN is putting a lid for this election season on guest commentaries about the jail tax. Thanks to the many readers who submitted opinions.

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