By Stefanie Donahue
It’s been four years since a county task force called the need to replace the Whatcom County Jail “critical,” due to overcrowding and unsafe conditions. One failed sales tax measure later, the county has a new plan on the table, and cities from Blaine to Bellingham are being asked to help fund it.
On June 12, Blaine City Council voted unanimously to approve an Interlocal Jail Facility Financing and Use Agreement between Whatcom County and all cities within its jurisdiction. Lynden, Sumas and Ferndale city councils have also approved the agreement, said Blaine city manager Dave Wilbrecht.
The agreement was approved by the Whatcom County Council on May 30 in a 4–3 vote, with Ken Mann, Barry Buchanan and Todd Donovan voting no. It allows the county to place a sales tax measure on the general election ballot to fund a new jail facility on LaBounty Road in Ferndale.
If approved by county voters, the sales tax would increase by .2 percent and would be used to fund the project’s construction debt services. The new jail would house 440 inmates and include 36 medical and behavioral health facility beds, according to an early draft.
Each city would retain a portion of the sales tax revenue to address public safety needs, including per diem expenses for city inmates, which in Blaine is currently paid out of the general fund. Each city negotiated changes in the agreement to reduce the project’s total cost and increase each city’s share of the sales tax, according to a city staff report. Blaine’s share of the net revenue, after subtracting debt service payment for the jail, is estimated at $34,266 in 2018 and $75,925 in 2019.
The cost of building and paying for the jail would break down as follows: Whatcom County – 78 percent; Bellingham – 15.8 percent; Lynden, 1.8 percent; Ferndale – 2.8 percent; Blaine – 0.8 percent; Everson/Nooksack – 0.6 percent; and Sumas – 0.2 percent. The cities, in total, would account for 22 percent of the total cost.
In November 2015, 51.4 percent of Whatcom County voters voted against increasing the sales tax by .2 percent to pay for the construction of a new 521-bed jail.
Whatcom County is responsible for housing individuals charged, sentenced or ordered in custody by the district and superior courts as well as those booked by local law enforcement.
When the current jail was built in 1983, its designed capacity was 148 inmates, but remodels over the last three decades have upped the count to 280. According to Whatcom County Sheriff Bill Elfo, the jail was housing upwards of 350 inmates in 2015.
As a temporary solution, the Whatcom County Sheriff’s Office took measures to reduce the inmate population by arranging transfers to other jails such as Yakima County Jail. It costs $98 a day to house an inmate in jail or another established corrections facility, in Whatcom County. In Yakima County, it’s $54.75 and the cost includes transportation to and from Whatcom County.
“While taking action that will result in inmates being removed from their community and families is not ideal, neither is leaving them in our county jail, which has been reported by architects, engineers, multiple citizen committees, fire officials and the National Institute of Corrections as posing serious threats to human life,” Elfo said in an editorial published in The Northern Light in February 2016.
In addition to considering inmate housing alternatives, the Whatcom County Sheriff’s Office has also placed a larger emphasis on reducing jail incarceration by supervising suspects before trial, offering spots on community work crews, issuing more work releases and monitoring individuals electronically from home, as opposed to incarceration.
Elfo also asked Bellingham to consider decriminalizing certain acts such as sleeping on the sidewalk and garbage violations to reduce the number of inmates.
Addressing mental health concerns has also been a pressing issue for the sheriff’s office and county. The increased demand for space has left little to no room for mental and medical health evaluation, treatment or special housing, Elfo said. To address the issue, the sheriff’s office has advocated for community-based treatment and resources.
“As sheriff, I will work closely with other officials to minimize disruption and ensure as smooth a transition as possible in reaching a safer and humane jail for our community,” he said.