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.”

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