The Gristle

The Calm Before the Storm

Wednesday, April 26, 2017

THE CALM BEFORE THE STORM: Let’s map the coordinates and storm surge of the hurricane that’s standing just offshore, gathering dynamic energy and ready to race inland.

The storm, of course, is a proposed new jail. A plan and initiative to finance a large, remote $100 million jail and Sheriff’s facility by means of a sales tax collapsed in 2015, largely as result of the adjectives in this very sentence—questions about size, about location, about price, about the conjoinment and overlap of Sheriff’s desires, about the financial instrument of that project. Mostly, it collapsed because of a failure to build a consensus—a meeting of minds and public confidence around all of these issues. In particular, the City of Bellingham—the population and commerce center of Whatcom County—was never on board with the proposal, and with City Council’s vote of no confidence as guide, city voters destroyed the matter at the polls, with 60 percent opposed. The storm has grown in magnitude since that defeat, with county estimates of delayed, protracted construction costs now approaching the range of $120 million for a public bond.

Holding the storm offshore is Whatcom County Council, which has heard nothing but rumors that the County Executive intends to bring this matter to them for approval in time for a new initiative to make the ballot in November. Flashes that will happen are accompanied by no thunder from the executive’s office.

The Gristle will forecast this: County Council will not approve an initiative for the November ballot unless this time the City of Bellingham is on board with the plan. On that front, recent fruitful negotiations between the county and city suggest the breeze is quickening.

Social and criminal justice issues can never be mapped along a single dimension, but are understood more as Cartesian coordinates in three dimensions (four, if you include the passage of time, and the needs and scale of facilities required to serve a county through this century). In one quadrant of this Cartesian model we may place a jail. In the others, we might map the inadequacy of the county’s response to mental health and chemical dependency, and other forces that feed into incarceration rates generally in the United States.

First, though, let’s better understand those finance instruments.

In 2003, counties were given authority to impose a 0.3 percent sales tax with voter approval for public safety. Under that license, the county would retain 60 percent of the revenue, and cities receive the other 40 percent on a per-capita basis. One-third of that revenue must be used for public safety. The hitch is that if cities foreclose on the money first for their own municipal public safety initiatives, the county cannot demand above that cap; conversely, if counties bring it all under their control, cities may see themselves starved for their own programs.

Cooperation, coordination and trust, then, determine the willingness of cities and their counties to parcel these revenues.

In 2004, Whatcom County did try to glom on to at least a portion of that fixed capacity, coaxing voters to approve a new 0.2 percent sales tax increase to build a new jail. The money ultimately did not go toward that construction but was instead used to backfill and pad out various county criminal justice efforts. A sliver of that capacity left over from 2004 remains. In 2008, the county reached out for and grabbed another taxing instrument for chemical dependency and mental health treatment services that might fund a therapeutic court program.

Yet after the collection of millions of dollars and years of studying and recognizing the problem, the county has in place not one dependency or mental health treatment outreach facility, not one initiative to treat opioid and analogous drug abuse, and attempts at a triage center to manage the problem are stalled. Therapeutic courts? Still under discussion.

The jail initiative needs to be understood in one context: The desire of the county to glom onto, and control, the last untapped portion of the public safety sales tax that was not fully grabbed in 2004.

And in that context, maybe it is not that terrible of a concept, a vast pool of money—all the money there is, essentially—to craft a comprehensive criminal and social justice response for Whatcom County and all its citizens. Thus, the jail initiative needs to be understood less in its specifics—size, location, dynamics—than as the spur that compels voters to agree to fully finance the whole spectrum of county criminal and social justice initiatives.

And therein lies the problem, since the 2004 money has aeorsolized into general criminal justice expenditures and the 2008 revenues have yet to demonstrate actual restorative justice. The county’s track record, when handed cash for important defined programs, has been slow, if not terrible.

Circling back to the Cartesian dimensions of the problem, the issue of homelessness must factor huge into all its quadrants. One must wonder to what degree the sluggishness of the county in developing mental health services, in triage facilities, in drug and alcohol counseling, in therapeutic courts, in diversions to incarceration and other lapses and delays has fed directly into the homelessness crisis of the current hour. How big, in other words, would Bellingham’s problem be if the county, into which the city is already paying social service revenues, was more brisk in its solutions? Corollary, how big must the jail be if these solutions were speedily underway?

The gathering storm does raise profound questions that, if the problems ancillary to jail were properly addressed, feed into all those adjectives about the size, location, placement, cost and urgency of the jail.

Give us the money, the county argues, and the problems will be addressed. The argument takes on a form of extortion.

Earlier this month—this month!—the county finally got its data to the Vera Institute, a consulting group focused on the causes and consequences of mass incarceration, racial disparities, and the loss of public trust in law enforcement, to the unmet needs of the vulnerable, the marginalized, and those harmed by crime and violence. That seems like the start of a conversation on those topics, not the canard that “experts were consulted” as gilded fig leaf to paper over a predetermined jail initiative.

An initiative to replace an overcrowded jail is ripe unto rotten; still not ripe in terms of its fitness for public consumption.

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Past Columns
Ounce of Prevention

September 20, 2017

Dwelling On It

September 13, 2017

Keeping the Dream Alive

September 6, 2017

A Bridge Too Far?

August 23, 2017

The Missing Middle

August 16, 2017

The Last, Best Solution

August 9, 2017

Fire and Water III

August 2, 2017

Fire and Water II

July 26, 2017

Fire and Water

July 19, 2017

Some Assembly Required

July 12, 2017

Good, Bad, Ugly

July 5, 2017

Zero Hour

June 28, 2017

Standoff

June 21, 2017

An Existential Triangle

June 14, 2017

Divided Decisions

June 7, 2017

Breached and Beached

May 10, 2017

Events
Today
Eat Local Month

10:00am|Whatcom County

Boating Center Open

12:00pm|Community Boating Center

The Addams Family Musical

7:30pm|Claire vg Thomas Theatre

Wild Things

9:30am|Whatcom Falls Park

Ferndale Farmers Market

3:00pm|Centennial Riverwalk Park

Foof Not Bombs

4:00pm|Downtown Bellingham

Farm Tunes

6:00pm|BelleWood Acres

Oktoberfest Cruises

6:30pm|Bellingham Cruise Terminal

The Last Outrageous Women

7:00pm|Village Books

Forever Plaid

7:30pm|Conway Muse

The Mousetrap

7:30pm| Bellingham Theatre Guild

Friday Night Flicks

7:30pm|Van Zandt Community Hall

Young Frankenstein

7:30pm|Anacortes Community Theatre

7-Day Dance Festival Finale

7:30pm|Firehouse Performing Arts Center

Figmentally, Circus for All

8:00pm|Cirque Lab

Welcome Back Students Shows

8:00pm|Upfront Theatre

MBT Janis Joplin
Tomorrow
Eat Local Month

10:00am|Whatcom County

Boating Center Open

12:00pm|Community Boating Center

The Addams Family Musical

7:30pm|Claire vg Thomas Theatre

Oktoberfest Cruises

6:30pm|Bellingham Cruise Terminal

Forever Plaid

7:30pm|Conway Muse

The Mousetrap

7:30pm| Bellingham Theatre Guild

Young Frankenstein

7:30pm|Anacortes Community Theatre

Welcome Back Students Shows

8:00pm|Upfront Theatre

Figmentally, Circus for All

8:00pm|Cirque Lab

South Whatcom Birding Walks

8:00am|South Whatcom Library

Harvest Happens

8:00am|Bellewood Acres

Pancake Breakfast

8:00am|American Legion Hall

Southside Rummage Sale

8:30am| Our Saviour's Lutheran Church

Twin Sisters Farmers Market

9:00am|North Fork Library, Nugents Corner

Mount Vernon Farmers Market

9:00am|Riverfront Plaza

Anacortes Farmers Market

9:00am|Depot Arts Center

Make It and Take it

9:00am|Garden Spot Nursery

Blaine Gardeners Market

10:00am|H Street Plaza

Bellingham Farmers Market

10:00am|Depot Market Square

Little Mountain Trail 10K

10:00am|Carpenter Creek Winery

Salmon Sighting

10:00am|Thompson Creek Bridge

Pesto Perfecto

11:00am|Ferndale Library

Council of the Animals

11:00am|Boulevard Park

Trial Vineyard Open House

12:00pm|Cloud Mountain Farm Center

Sedro-Woolley Brewfest

2:00pm|Hammer Heritage Square

The Art of Living

3:00pm|Deming Library

River Walk

3:00pm| Horseshoe Bend Trailhead.

Nooksack River Walk

3:00pm|Horseshoe Bend Trailhead

Kulshan CLT Community Party

5:00pm|Boundary Bay Brewery

BowEdison Anniversary Party

5:30pm|BowEdison

Democrats Dinner

5:30pm| Silver Reef Hotel Casino Spa

Fall Demo Derby

6:30pm|Northwest Washington Fairgrounds

Contra Dance

7:00pm|Fairhaven Library

Moment

7:30pm|Firehouse Performing Arts Center

Salsa Night

9:30pm|Cafe Rumba

BOB_2017 Bellingham Farmer’s Market
Sunday
Eat Local Month

10:00am|Whatcom County

Boating Center Open

12:00pm|Community Boating Center

The Addams Family Musical

7:30pm|Claire vg Thomas Theatre

Forever Plaid

7:30pm|Conway Muse

The Mousetrap

7:30pm| Bellingham Theatre Guild

Figmentally, Circus for All

8:00pm|Cirque Lab

Harvest Happens

8:00am|Bellewood Acres

Bellingham Bay Marathon

7:30am|Gooseberry Point

Rabbit Ride

8:00am|Fairhaven Bicycle

Rabbit Ride

8:00am|Fairhaven Bicycle

Eat Local Month's Restaurant Week

8:00am|Whatcom County

Oyster Run Motorcycle Rally

9:00am|Anacortes

Audubon at the Museum

1:30pm|Whatcom Museum's Old City Hall

Whatcom Chorale Benefit Concert

3:00pm|St. Paul's Episcopal Church

see our complete calendar »

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