Tax Measure, New Facility Concerns, Construction Plans: Updates On The Whatcom County Jail Debate
By Lydia Denney
Two years after an initial jail tax proposal was voted down by Whatcom County voters, a revised tax agreement will be on the ballot in November. There has been frequent controversy over the proposed new jail’s size, funding and location.
On July 10, Bellingham became the last city in Whatcom County to approve the new tax proposal, called the Jail Facility Use Agreement. On July 11, the Whatcom County Council approved putting the jail measure on the November ballot.
The ballot measure proposes raising the sales tax by 0.2 percent to fund the construction of the new jail and other criminal justice programs. The estimated total total cost of the project is around $110 million, according to the jail agreement.
The 2015 ballot measure also proposed raising the sales tax by 0.2 percent, with half the tax expiring once the 30-year construction bonds were repaid. The 2015 measure did not pass, failing by 1,661 votes out of a total of 58,301 votes. According to the Whatcom County auditor, 51.42 percent rejected the measure and 48.58 percent approved it.
There have been various concerns surrounding the condition of the current Whatcom County Jail located downtown on Grand Ave, which opened in 1984. There have been various concerns surrounding the condition of the jail. According to the Whatcom County Jail Planning Task Force, the current jail is overcrowded and the building is “structurally deficient.”
“Everybody deserves a decent quality of life, and there is nothing about that jail right now that is decent or humane.”
Pinky Vargas, city councilmember
“Everybody deserves a decent quality of life, and there is nothing about that jail right now that is decent or humane,” councilmember Pinky Vargas said.
Community members and councilmembers at the meetings also expressed varying concerns regarding the jail agreement.
Todd Donovan, a political science professor at Western and County Council member, said he is not comfortable putting the jail measure on the ballot. Based on his own research, Donovan said it will be easier for voters to reject the jail measure again this time, considering the initiative hasn’t changed a lot since 2015.
Wendy Jones, Chief Corrections Deputy for the Whatcom County Sheriff’s Office, supports the initiative because she said the current jail has outlived its life. She believes the new proposed measure has been refined since 2015.
“They have included in the ballot measure itself the importance of continuing forward and looking at jail alternatives,” Jones said. “It will allow some of that tax money to be used for those purposes, which is terrific. And that didn’t exist in 2015.”
On top of adding incarceration prevention programs to the initiative, other changes since 2015 include more equitable division of the jail cost between the cities in Whatcom County and the number of beds has been lowered.
City Council President Michael Lilliquist explained that negotiations with the county helped to emphasize alternatives to reduce incarceration, such as public safety programs, and allowed for more money to fund them. Lilliquist said the old jail agreement was flawed, but it has since been fixed.
“To me, the fundamental flaw with the approach has been addressed — that there was no money for the alternatives, no guarantees for it. Well now there’s money, now there’s guarantees,” Lilliquist said.
Other opponents of the initiative include the Restorative Community Coalition, a nonprofit organization that works to redesign Whatcom County’s justice system through alternative incarceration prevention methods like counseling, substance abuse programs and temporary housing.
Whatcom County residents will be able to vote on the jail tax measure in November.
Here are some controversial issues being addressed concerning the new jail, along with what various supporters and opponents have to say:
The current jail was built in 1984 and was designed to hold 148 people. The population of Whatcom County has increased by approximately 57 percent over the past 32 years, according to 2010 census data.
According to the use agreement, the planned size of the new jail is 440 beds, which means there will be 221 beds per 100,000 people in the county. There will be an additional 36 “special needs” beds in a separate part of the jail that will be used for people experiencing substance abuse, mental illness and physical disabilities. The new jail will also provide group therapy spaces. With the extra land at the proposed new site, there is an option to expand the jail if needed, Jones said.
Jones said despite alternative methods and prevention programs, the current jail is still overcrowded and everyone within the jail needs more space.
“I have a lot of offenders that are locked down 23 hours a day because I don’t have enough room to move them away from people they don’t play well with,” Jones said. “So they wind up being stuck in the equivalent of a large bathroom 23 hours out of 24. That’s not healthy for people.”
Deciding on a specific size for the jail has been an ongoing debate. Supporters fear the jail won’t be big enough, but opponents want to keep the size to a minimum number of beds and focus on prevention programs.
“The only way to control jail population is to first understand ‘What are the drivers for the population being put in the jail?’” Lilliquist said. “Understand those drivers, and if you do not, then there is no jail that is built to the right size and no jail that would be big enough.”
The number of medical beds used for mental health and substance abuse issues has also been an issue of debate. Some people, like councilmembers Donovan and Barbara Brenner, are worried that 36 beds isn’t enough. Donovan hopes that the current number of beds can be changed to provide more special needs beds.
“[The number of special needs beds] is utterly insufficient for the whole of Whatcom County,” said Amy Malone, board member for the Restorative Community Coalition. “There need to be more programs like community options for each town to have something like that, rather than just one location for the entire county.”
Most of Whatcom County’s funding plans for the new jail can be found in a draft of the Jail Facility Use Agreement.
In 2004, Whatcom County voters passed a measure to increase taxes by 0.1 percent to help fund a new jail. The money generated from the 2004 tax increase helped fund part of the construction of a temporary minimum security work center.
Whatcom County Executive Jack Louws addressed some of reasons for the cost of the jail project at the County Council meeting. Within the project costs is the removal of the old jail, extra site work, the sally port holding area at the courthouse and one and a half pods, or a cluster of cells surrounding a living area, for control centers, Louws said.
“What we did do is we agreed to pay our fair share. What we did do is agree to spend millions on reducing, preventing avoidable incarceration. But we did not necessarily ask you to put it on the ballot,” Lilliquist said to the County Council.
Though supporters and opponents working on the jail initiative have made many compromises, opponents still feel that the process is being rushed and that there are still decisions to be made concerning the measure.
“Our main focus now is going to continue educating the public,” Malone said. “Not because we don’t see a need for a new jail, but we don’t want it to be out in Ferndale, we don’t want it to become a mega-jail and we don’t want to pay another new tax that is going to financially break the county and the citizens.”
The proposed location of the new jail would be a property on LaBounty Road in southern Ferndale.
When acquiring the property, County Executive Jack Louws contacted every realtor in Whatcom County with a list of criteria for the new jail location, Jones said. The property was chosen for reasons including its flat land, extra space and transportation services that go to the location, Jones said.
Opponents to the initiative are still skeptical about the location of the jail. Because Bellingham has such a large population compared to the other cities in the county, some opponents believe the jail should stay in Bellingham, preferably downtown.
In a letter to the Whatcom County Council on June 20, 2017, Lilliquist wrote: “For the record, the City Council would like to register our continued dissent and disagreement with the decision to locate the new jail at some distance from the County Courthouse. In our view, this incurs costs and operational burdens for the City and for members of our community, including families of the incarcerated persons.”
Jones said that there more people outside of Bellingham city limits than there are inside the city limits.
“The planned urban growth area for Bellingham is to the north and west, so downtown will eventually no longer be central,” Jones said.
The sheriff will also have an office location in Bellingham within the courthouse complex in accordance with state law, Jones said.
Jones said the current jail is no longer sustainable since there are significant concerns about the structural integrity.
“The short version is this building is falling apart. And it doesn’t matter how much paint and glue you use to hold it together,” Jones said.
Some worried the new jail would only perpetuate the issues of mass incarceration and its disproportionate effects on people of color. Laura Norton asked city councilmembers to instead focus on alternatives.
“What I have is a vision for our community that includes a decrease in the emphasis on punishment and a decrease in the adverse impacts on people of color and low income folks in our community,” Norton said.
Victoria Matey, a member of Western’s Blue Group, said the council did not stand with the people of Bellingham when making their decision and spoke on the issue of mass incarceration people of color.
“Funding the new jail and supporting the relocation of the new jail is supporting a racist structure that this country was founded on, and perpetuated to this day by the very people who benefit from it,” Matey said to the council.
Claims regarding the disproportionate number of people of color were recently backed by the Vera Institute of Justice, which studied the population growth of the Whatcom County Jail. The report concluded that black men and women are admitted to the Whatcom jail at eight and five times the rate of white men and women, respectively, as compared to their representation in the Whatcom County population. The study also accounts for similar disproportions across other races and ethnicities.
People on either side of the jail debate have different ideas on how to fix Whatcom County’s justice system. However, both sides say they want results that will help the community.
“We need to fix it as a community,” Jones said. “I think this is a well thought-out plan; it anticipates for the future, and if you go to the ‘hope for the best but prepare for the worst,’ I think that’s what you want a county government do.”
Though Donovan was opposed to putting the jail initiative on the ballot, he understands that everyone is trying to help the current situation.
“I’ve been amazed by the process. You know, we’re all trying to get to the right thing,” Donovan said.