Guest Commentaries

Lynden mayor: Public safety 'in crisis'; jail deserves yes vote

The discussion is 'mired in numbers, misinformation'
September 22, 2023 at 5:00 a.m.
Voters will be asked in November to approve a sales tax to fund replacement of the Whatcom County Jail on Central Avenue in downtown Bellingham. Details about how the money will be spent won't be available until after ballots are counted.
Voters will be asked in November to approve a sales tax to fund replacement of the Whatcom County Jail on Central Avenue in downtown Bellingham. Details about how the money will be spent won't be available until after ballots are counted. (Ron Judd/Cascadia Daily News)

By Scott Korthuis, Guest Writer

No one disagrees that Whatcom County’s current jail is deplorable and unsafe for inmates and staff. No one disagrees that individuals with behavioral health issues need an appropriate place within our criminal justice system. No one disagrees that our undersized facility has created booking restrictions responsible for escalated criminal activity. 

The controversy is simply mired in numbers, misinformation and lack of education. But public safety is in crisis, and we all have the responsibility to find a solution. It is unconscionable to kick this can down the road any longer.

We spent significant funds on facility pre-planning in 2015 and 2017, only to have the voters reject the plan. So, to be fiscally responsible, instead of wasting money and starting from scratch, this time we used those previous estimates and fine-tuned and updated them for the current tax proposal. That’s responsible government. Rather than complain about lack of detail, let’s compliment the county administration for being stewards of our tax dollars.

The cost estimate is $137 million for a 440-bed facility, which is 20% more capacity than we have today. However, the size has not been determined. All the cities in Whatcom County want a jail that is big enough so that the day it opens we will not experience the current booking restrictions. Booking and releasing clearly is not working for our community. 

All the cities want a new appropriately sized jail and they are willing to help pay for it. When a new public safety tax is enacted by the citizens, the county will get 60% of the funds and the cities will get 40%, prorated by population. Of this 40%, the mayors have agreed in concept to drive down the jail bond payment by committing 50% of these new funds for a “down payment” account.

This commitment is for the first four to six years of tax collection. If cost projections come in near current estimates, then four years of city funding would be required to drive the jail bond amount down to a comfortable size. 

If the costs come in higher, the last two years of the city’s commitment could bring in over $26 million, again driving the bond and subsequent bond payment down to a comfortable level. 

Despite the misinformation, this is a responsible and realistic plan. 

As the cost and size are both estimates, the planners are using higher numbers in case the facility costs more than planned. A 440-bed facility is an estimate; we hope that is sufficient, but if it isn’t, the plan will be able to adjust for more capacity. One thing is certain: Cost and size go hand in hand.

The proposed 0.2% public safety tax amounts to 20 cents on a $100 purchase. Remember that a sales tax also harnesses the purchases of out-of-town visitors (Canadians in particular) to help fund our correctional facility. This tax is projected to bring in $14.2 million in the first year.  

Don’t forget: Maintaining the current jail costs taxpayers millions just to keep it in a minimum working condition. The current jail does not meet minimum standards. The hazards in the facility put the county at risk of lawsuits; a catastrophic event which causes loss of life or injury to inmates, has projected litigation payouts estimates of more than $500 million — four times the cost of the new jail. And resulting insurance rates into the foreseeable future would be astronomical. We cannot continue to throw good money at a bad situation.

These are the realities our county leaders are struggling to balance with fiscal integrity and thoughtful vision. The problem is not going away. Yes, it is complicated. Yes, it is costly. We had the opportunity to do this in 2017 for $110 million — today it is $30 million more. 

We cannot afford to wait. Now is the time to step up and vote YES for a new county jail and behavioral health facility.

Scott Korthuis is mayor of Lynden and member of the “Yes! Safe Jail, and Healthy Outcomes” committee.

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