After more than five years of analyzing properties, conducting environmental studies and weighing the options, Whatcom County Council has set the site of Whatcom County’s future jail in stone.
The site became official when the county council voted to buy a 39-acre site on LaBounty Drive in Ferndale for $6.1 million plus closing costs. The resolution passed 6–1 at a regular session November 26, with council member Barbara Brenner opposed.
Prior to the vote, eight county residents spoke against the purchase, arguing that more resources should be devoted to alternative means of justice. Joy Gilfilen, president of the Restorative Community Coalition, said there are better ways to reduce overcrowding than investing heavily in a jail facility.
“With the amount being spent on this new jail, make no mistake – you are voting for a prison industry in Whatcom County,” she said. “There are many other ways to reduce overcrowding.”
Gilfilen and other speakers stressed the benefits of restorative justice, a process that seeks to reconcile criminals with their victims and focuses on community service as an alternative to incarceration. The approach results in perpetrators and victims healing from conflict and restoring their place in society, while costing less than incarceration, Gilfilen said.
“I urge everyone to take a few minutes to Google ‘restorative justice,’” said Western Washington University senior Eve Moss. “You’ll find many positive examples of its success.”
Council members responded that the new jail is a dire need given the cramped conditions and quality of the current jail in Bellingham, and that it would not take away from the county’s support of alternative justice programs.
“I think alternative programming in our justice system is a very important topic that we are going to address,” council member Ken Mann said. “Right now, we know we need a new jail, we know we need a place to put it, and this is a very good place. We’ve spent a long time looking at it and it’s not being rushed. I hope the people who spoke tonight remain engaged in the real work of designing the jail and the programming that goes along with it.”
Brenner agreed that matters of alternative justice would be important topics in future jail discussions. She pointed out the council’s support of the drug court and her desire for a mental health court, which would link mentally ill perpetrators with long-term mental health care. The drug court gives offenders with minor drug charges alternatives to jail time.
“We didn’t reduce our funding of the drug court, and I have been wanting a mental health court for years,” Brenner said. “We’ll be working towards establishing a mental health court whether we get the new jail or not.”
Under the latest plans, the new jail would cost an estimated $109 million to build, but councilmembers have stated their desire to plan for a cheaper jail. A bond measure to fund construction of the new jail will have to pass a countywide vote.
Brenner voted against purchasing the site on LaBounty Drive in Ferndale because of concerns about pollution on the property, and she proposed an amendment to the purchase language that would hold the seller liable if any pollution were found during initial construction of the jail. County executive Jack Louws said testing at the site had eliminated any doubt in his mind about pollution on the site.
“We have done the due diligence to check out the property,” he said. “In 2008, Whatcom Environmental dug test pits that came back negative. Some members of the public questioned their results so we spent tens of thousands of dollars in the last several months retesting the site. Everything has come back 100 percent clean.”
The council voted down Brenner’s amendment before approving the resolution to purchase the jail site.
Jail planners DLR Group, Shockey Planning Group and county officials will now move forward with the design of the new jail. Planners will have to work with the city of Ferndale to determine how sewage from the facility will be managed. Ferndale is in the process of upgrading its sewage treatment facilities, which may necessitate temporary onsite sewage treatment at the jail.
Current plans call for a two-phase construction building a 521-bed jail by 2017 and a possible expansion to 649 beds by 2026. Construction of facility would cost around $79 million, and the design, permitting, $6.1 million price of the property and other costs would bring the total price tag to around $109 million.
Council members and executive Louws have said the key will be striking a balance between what the county needs and what it can afford.