Bellingham proposes one last compromise on jail

By Steve Guntli

Bellingham mayor Kelli Linville is making one last proposal to Whatcom County Council to ensure her city won’t be cut out of the county jail plan.

On July 20, Linville and Bellingham City Council worked out a proposal that would require immediate assistance to the city at the county’s expense.

Under Bellingham’s new proposal, the county would be responsible for finding ways to treat people with mental illness or addiction “immediately” and with no additional cost to Bellingham or the other six cities in the county.

Bellingham has been reluctant to sign on to the jail plan as originally drafted and accepted by the other six cities in the county (Blaine, Everson, Nooksack, Ferndale, Lynden and Sumas). The sticking point is the plan to institute a 0.2 percent sales tax increase to fund the new jail, which would bring the city up against the .3 percent sales tax ceiling for funding jail prevention or public safety programs. The new proposal would allow the city to continue to fund these programs while still helping pay for the jail.

The county formed an incarceration prevention and reduction task force in June, with the intention of allowing the task force to plan for the opening of the new jail in 2019. If Bellingham’s proposal is accepted, the task force would move up its timeline to November 2016, at which point it would propose ways to expand and improve existing programs.

The proposal would not go into effect unless voters approve a 0.2 percent sales tax in the November 3 general election. Linville, in a letter to county council, said she believed she could convince the city council to sign on to the jail plan if these changes are approved.

On July 21, the county council voted to introduce a version of the proposal with some altered language to change “immediately” to “as soon as reasonably possible.” The council may also decide to impose some of the expenses for the programs on the cities rather than fund the projects entirely.

County executive Jack Louws set an August 14 deadline for Bellingham to sign on to the jail plan as originally proposed. That plan calls for $97 million for a 521-bed facility. If Bellingham does not agree to the terms in time, the county has drafted a revised proposal for the remaining six cities in the county, which would reduce the facility to 400 beds for approximately $75 million.

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