The Gristle

Divided Decisions

Wednesday, June 7, 2017

DIVIDED DECISIONS: Whatcom County Executive Jack Louws again stressed the need for a safe, secure jail facility in his annual State of the County address to Council last week, and noted the spiraling costs from the county’s failure to move forward on a funding mechanism.

Citing a list of policy successes and good fiscal management in every department, Louws stressed the county does face severe challenges, one of which is a new justice center to replace the deteriorating county jail.

“We have made strides to find consensus with all our cities on a new jail use agreement,” Louws said—and on that he is certainly correct, with the City of Bellingham, the largest single user of jail services among Whatcom’s cities, on the threshold of approving a new jail facility financing and use agreement (JFFUA). “Before you,” the executive continued to County Council, “is a proposal for your consideration to move this project forward for potential voter approval. Our current facility, as you are aware, needs replacement for the safety of staff and residents. We are still in the race against the cost escalation of construction with every day that passes. I ask that you act expediently on the decision to authorize my signature and to authorize the vote in November. Without voter support, we will need to continue to protect our cash reserves to pay for the operation and maintenance of our existing jail.”

County Council was indeed in receipt of a proposal to place a second sales tax measure to build and operate a new jail facility on the November ballot, and debate it they did. In many ways, it is a markedly improved proposal than one put to voters in 2015 that failed to secure the support of the City of Bellingham and failed at the polls by a significant margin in the county’s population centers. Unquestionably, that measure failed in large part because the county did not secure the approval of Bellingham representatives and voters in a half-baked plan that jammed the city for far more jail costs than the city was demonstrably using or likely to use.

County Council must decide to approve the measure by next month to place it on the November ballot, and they’re trying to overcome the earlier measure’s deficiencies.

Council members expressed unease about the proposed size of the new jail and its location, the presumption the facility will be built on land acquired by the county near LaBounty Road in Ferndale apparently baked deep into the jail plan. Council member Ken Mann, the principal liaison between the Council and the administration on issues related to the jail, recommended stripping the assumption from the JFFUA. Mann also proposed knocking down the number of beds in the initial modular facility by 10 percent to reflect county initiatives underway to decrease incarceration rates. Council also took an unusual step to limit the term of the sales tax levy to 30 years, reasoning that the jail facility bond will be paid by 2049 and that the demands on the public safety sales tax may have evolved considerably and need revision by that date.

Council members have insisted that policy matters of size and location remain primarily within their discretion and control, and not formalized inside a jail facilities use agreement. The JFFUA serves more as a financial planning document that outlines what Whatcom’s cities must pay for their use of the jail and what accommodations and services might be guaranteed to cities under the agreement. Under the terms of the taxing instrument (RCW 82.14.450), the county retains 60 percent of sales tax receipts; cities are rebated 40 percent of overall revenue on a per capita basis—but then the cities must pay for criminal justice services administered by the county. Ideally, cities would claw a few pennies back out of the arrangement to finance their own public safety and social justice initiatives; and the JFFUA helps memorialize that ideal. In essence, the cities are agreeing to allow the county to have access to all the money there is, and all the money there ever will be, for future facilities and programs to address a myriad of social and criminal justice concerns well into midcentury.

Council’s changes attempt to address the inadequacies of the 2015 initiative with its baked-in assumptions about size, location and the levy horizon of a public safety sales tax measure originally imagined would be permanent. Council provisionally approved the draft outline of the JFFUA on a split vote of 4 to 3.

The matter this week moved back across the street to Bellingham City Council to consider.

City Council as a group is a great deal more pleased with the JFFUA than in previous versions. The administration’s primary questions—which had little to do with jail size and location, and more with the equitability of what the city would pay to receive jail beds and the services—have been largely answered in the current draft.

Still, significant questions remain and City Council chose to take no action to approve the JFFUA until County Council prepares to place the levy proposal on the November ballot. Their vote to delay was likewise split, 4 to 3.

A pall hangs over both legislative bodies, in part because jail planning continues to be constructed upside down—severed from the work of the incarceration alternatives task force; bereft of the products from the county’s own Ground-level Response and Coordinated Engagement (GRACE) project and proposed behavioral health triage center; and ignorant of the findings of the Vera Institute consultants, whose report on the causes and consequences of mass incarceration is due to the county later this year. Decisions before data, who can say how the aggregate of this work will influence the final size of the proposed jail?

City Council member Dan Hammill summed up the malaise: “The overall fundamental problem with this is that we’re being asked to do our work out of order. We are out of order and in isolation of mitigating facts in one of the most costly and important decisions in this county’s history.

“We’re not being asked to consider reforms and improvements to our local criminal justice system in determining the size, location and costs of the jail—in fact, those items aren’t even up for discussion,” he said. “Decision makers, including voters, need to have data and information. We do not have the benefit of that at all.”

SVCR Aaron Neville
Past Columns
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

Breached and Beached

May 10, 2017

The Calm Before the Storm

April 26, 2017

April Showers 2

April 19, 2017

April Showers

April 12, 2017

The Fix Flops

April 5, 2017

A Perfect Storm

March 29, 2017

Monopoly

March 15, 2017

Layers of Concern

March 8, 2017

The Fix Is In

March 1, 2017

Events
Today
Sounds by the bay

9:41am

Look to the skies

8:43pm

Sounds by the bay

9:41am

Look to the skies

8:43pm

Sounds by the bay

9:41am

Look to the skies

8:43pm

Sounds by the bay

9:41am

Skagit Tours

10:00am|Highway 20

Bard on the Beach

2:00pm|Vanier Park

I and You

7:30pm|Bellingham Theatre Guild

North Cascades Vintage Fly-In

12:00pm|Concrete

Mission Folk Music Festival

12:00pm|Fraser River Heritage Park

Plover Rides

12:00pm|Blaine Harbor

Plover Ferry Rides

12:00pm|Blaine Harbor

Pop-Up Beer Garden

3:00pm|Fairhaven

Skagit River Shakespeare Festival

7:00pm|Rexville Grange Amphitheater

The Drowsy Chaperone

7:00pm|Bellingham Arts Academy for Youth

Birch Bay Sandcastle Competition

10:00am|Birch Bay Community Park

Plover Rides

12:00pm|Blaine Harbor

Farm to Glass Distillery Tours

12:00pm|BelleWood Acres

Plover Ferry Rides

12:00pm|Blaine Harbor

Look to the skies

8:43pm

Rabbit Ride

8:00am|Fairhaven Bicycle

Rabbit Ride

8:00am|Fairhaven Bicycle

Vietnam Veterans Car Show

10:00am|Barkley Village

Forest Walk

11:00am|Fairhaven Park

Plover Rides

12:00pm|Blaine Harbor

Plover Ferry Rides

12:00pm|Blaine Harbor

Brewers by the Bay

1:00pm|Depot Market Square

La Conner Live!

1:00pm|Gilkey Square

MBT Open House

2:00pm|Mount Baker Theatre

Fiddlin' Fox Summer Concert Series

2:00pm|Fairhaven Village Green

Audubon at the Museum

2:00pm|Whatcom Museum's Old City Hall

Angels in America

2:00pm|Lincoln Theatre

Trivia Night

5:00pm|Boundary Bay Brewery

Marrowstone Music Festival

7:00pm|Western Washington University

Mousetrap Auditions

7:00pm|Bellingham Theatre Guild

Trove
Tomorrow
Sounds by the bay

9:41am

Look to the skies

8:43pm

Sounds by the bay

9:41am

Look to the skies

8:43pm

Sounds by the bay

9:41am

Look to the skies

8:43pm

Sounds by the bay

9:41am

Skagit Tours

10:00am|Highway 20

Bard on the Beach

2:00pm|Vanier Park

Plover Rides

12:00pm|Blaine Harbor

Plover Ferry Rides

12:00pm|Blaine Harbor

Look to the skies

8:43pm

Plover Ferry Rides

12:00pm|Blaine Harbor

Plover Rides

12:00pm|Blaine Harbor

Mousetrap Auditions

7:00pm|Bellingham Theatre Guild

Marrowstone Music Festival

7:00pm|Western Washington University

Emerging Artists Teen Camp

9:00am|Whatcom Museum's Lightcatcher Building

Lion King Camp

10:00am|Lincoln Theatre

Kids Can Cook

12:00pm|Community Food Co-op

Nature in Your Neighborhood

12:30pm|The Oasis

Dig Into Fall

6:00pm|Mount Vernon City Library

Eat Your Weeds

6:30pm|Community Food Co-op

Addams Family Auditions

7:00pm|Claire vg Thomas Theatre

Poetrynight

8:00pm|Bellingham Public Library

Guffawingham

9:30pm|Green Frog

Village Books Bellingham Farmer’s Market
Tuesday
Sounds by the bay

9:41am

Look to the skies

8:43pm

Sounds by the bay

9:41am

Look to the skies

8:43pm

Sounds by the bay

9:41am

Look to the skies

8:43pm

Sounds by the bay

9:41am

Bard on the Beach

2:00pm|Vanier Park

Look to the skies

8:43pm

Plover Rides

12:00pm|Blaine Harbor

Plover Ferry Rides

12:00pm|Blaine Harbor

Marrowstone Music Festival

7:00pm|Western Washington University

Addams Family Auditions

7:00pm|Claire vg Thomas Theatre

Teens Can Cook

11:00am|Community Food Co-op

Readers Theatre Shakespeare Camp

12:00pm|Ferndale Library

BIFT

6:00pm|Boundary Bay Brewery

Sunset History Cruise

6:00pm|Bellingham Cruise Terminal

Float Run

6:00pm|Fairhaven Runners

The Art of Rappelling

6:00pm|REI

Bellingham Reads

6:30pm|Bellingham Public Library

Intro to Improv

7:00pm|Improv Playworks

Skagit Folk Dancers

7:00pm|Bayview Civic Hall

see our complete calendar »

Trove Village Books Bellingham Farmer’s Market Lester and Hyldahl Cascadia Weekly Subscribe Ad 1