No on Jail

Wednesday, October 18, 2017

Proposition 2017-6 is a bad deal for Whatcom County.

Whatcom County’s proposed new jail in Ferndale will be the largest capital improvement project in Whatcom County history. In November 2015, voters rejected a .2 percent increase in the Jail Sales Tax to build that jail. The County Council recently decided to put the issue back to the voters with Proposition 2017-6, but there are more reasons today to vote no—again.

Citizens are ostensibly at the top of the Whatcom County organization chart. Transparency and citizen inclusion in decisions made by our government should be routine, especially when the county seeks more taxes to pay for a jail that will—by conservative estimates—cost $230 million over a 30-year bond period. The operating costs of the jail over that time may be $1 billion—by the County Executive’s estimates. The proposed 32,000-square-foot sheriff’s headquarters will cost approximately $18 million, paid with bonds funded from other tax revenue streams.

County citizens already pay four separate sales taxes for jails and criminal justice, public safety and mental health purposes generating nearly $16 million yearly. Proposition 2017-6 would add another $8 million, totaling $24.2 million a year to the county and the cities—over and above the property taxes already allocated to the jail and criminal justice. In 30 years, taxpayers will have paid about $1.1 billion (raising $51 million a year in 2048; projected at a standard 2.5 percent yearly increase).

Whatcom County has approximately 217,000 citizens. Voters should ask both whether we can afford this jail, and whether we want the largest capital improvement project in Whatcom County history to be a jail.

The county is legally obligated to operate a safe and humane jail. There appears to be agreement on the poor conditions in the County Jail. Inhumane housing for inmates and an unsafe workplace have been used for years by the county as the reasons to build a new jail.

However, work orders should have been submitted for all deferred maintenance identified in a 2016 County-commissioned engineering report prepared by Design2Last (available on the Whatcom County website). The Design2Last report concludes that the downtown jail is structurally sound, and could be renovated for use as a maximum security facility—as originally intended. That would reduce the population in the downtown jail because non-violent offenders would transfer to the 150-bed minimum security facility on Division Street—which is in excellent condition according to Design2Last—and has available space.

The sheriff’s headquarters is currently located in the 20,000-square-foot basement of the jail. This space could be renovated for expanded programming space or secure mental health needs as there are other suitable locations for the sheriff’s headquarters. One such space is the largely unoccupied 25,000-square- foot Emergency Operations Center by the airport that currently houses city and county emergency management.

The county has never fully explored more cost-effective and feasible alternatives to a new jail. The county controlled the jail planning process and started at the end— with a fully-designed jail complex in Ferndale. To further that end, the county negotiated an Interlocal Jail Facility Financing and Use Agreement that divides among the county and cities excess  tax revenues (over and above capital costs) if Proposition 2017-6 passes. Each party to the agreement gets a cut of approximately $155 million in excess revenue. The agreement calls for incarceration reduction and diversion programs, but there is no guarantee of excess funds or that they will be used for those purposes.

With just the 2004 Jail Tax, the county will raise $4.2 million in 2018 with expected increases every year thereafter. Those revenues could fund any necessary repairs to the downtown Whatcom County Jail. In the 30 years covered by the agreement, the 2004 Jail Tax alone will raise at least  $198 million—enough to renovate and maintain the two county jail facilities (with a combined 364 beds).

Instead, the county plans—only now—to renovate the downtown jail to be legally compliant, and then demolish the current jail after the new jail is completed. The county will then build a sally port and smaller jail facility adjacent to the courthouse to hold inmates for booking or court appearances, hearings and trials. Transport to and from the proposed jail and downtown Bellingham will increase costs and liabilities. This plan is unsound and wasteful.

The voter’s rejection of Proposition 2015-1 paved the way for the Incarceration Prevention and Reduction Task Force. The County’s rush to get Proposition 2017-6 on the ballot prevented meaningful discussion of the work done by the Incarceration Prevention and Reduction Task Force on diversion and alternatives to incarceration, and the preliminary findings of the Vera Institute of Justice.

The Vera Institute has not even completed its final report. However, it warned in its preliminary report that:

“Any attempt to ease overcrowding by building a new facility or expanding the current one will not address the underlying causes of jail population growth, and the new facility will quickly become overcrowded. Criminal justice and community stakeholders must work together to achieve a safe, sustainable and fair justice system.”

Juliette Daniels is a licensed attorney in both Washington State and Texas. She holds a BJ in communications and news journalism from the University of Texas at Austin; and a law degree from the University of Houston Law Center.

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