County weighs options after Bellingham bails on jail

By Steve Guntli

Whatcom County Council is taking steps to make the county jail happen, with or without Bellingham’s support.

Bellingham City Council voted to reject a 32-year cost-sharing agreement between the county and the six smaller Whatcom  County cities at their regular meeting on June 15. The agreement would call for a .2 percent increase on sales tax to help fund the new county jail facility, to be built on a 39-acre tract in Ferndale on Labounty Road. The county and other cities agreed to the increase, but Bellingham demurred over concerns about the tax increase limiting its ability to address its own public safety concerns. The city council voted down the agreement 6–1.

At the regular meeting on June 23, Whatcom County Council discussed paring back the jail’s budget so the project would not be dependent on Bellingham’s participation.

Mayors representing the Small Cities Caucus have requested the council find a way to move the program forward with or without Bellingham, since the other six cities (Blaine, Lynden, Sumas, Nooksack, Everson and Ferndale) have already signed on for the project.

County executive Jack Louws offered the council three suggestions for how to proceed if Bellingham can’t be convinced to come aboard.

The first option is to put the .2 percent sales tax increase on the ballot with a goal of building a jail with up to 521 beds, but base the actual size of the facility around the cities that plan to pay for and use the new facility. Louws estimated Bellingham would use about 100 beds, so the jail could now have around 400 beds, reducing the cost of building the facility from $97 million to approximately $75 million.

The second option is to put the sales tax increase on the ballot and incorporate Bellingham mayor Kelli Linville’s changes into the document. Under the proposed cost-sharing agreement, the cities would give the majority of the revenue generated from the prison to the county, after which the county would take 60 percent while the cities would split the remaining 40.

Linville has proposed giving the cities a larger portion: cities would receive 85 percent of the first .1 percent sales tax increase, with unincorporated regions still feeding into the 60/40 agreement with the county. The revenue from the other .1 percent increase would still adhere to the 60/40 agreement, as well.

Louws estimates agreeing to Linville’s suggestions would shift $71.8 million in revenue from the county to the cities over the course of the 32-year agreement.

The third option Louws suggested was to suspend any action on the jail and not put the vote on the ballot. Louws emphasized to the council that he does not endorse the second two options and encouraged the council to pursue the first.

The council voted to add the sales tax increase to the November 3 ballot. The measure passed 6–1. The county council will receive a rewritten version of the jail agreement to approve at their meeting on July 7, after which the small cities will be asked to recommit to the agreement.

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