Winning the War, Losing the Battle
WINNING THE WAR, LOSING THE BATTLE: Whatcom County needs a new jail and at some point will have a new jail. On that, there is little doubt and—among opinion leaders—no debate. The question is, under what conditions shall we have it?
Pin pulled, the jail grenade was lobbed back into County Council’s foxhole this week. Battle-scarred, shell-shocked Council members gazed at it, dreadfully unsure whether to leap bodily upon it in self-sacrifice or kick it back across no man’s land to the City of Bellingham for one more try before the timer goes off and the damned thing detonates.
Bellingham City Council last week rejected the proposed financial plan for the construction and operation of a $122.5 million jail facility and Sheriff’s complex in Ferndale, citing myriad concerns with the proposal, suggesting instead a hybrid financial model that would more reasonably apportion costs charged to the cities.
“Only two years ago, the cost for a new jail was ballparked at $80,000 per bed (including all parts of the jail, not just cell blocks),” City Council member Michael Lilliquist wrote the county administration and policymakers in a followup to his colleagues’ discussion. “The cost estimates are now $180,000 per bed. That does not make sense, even accounting for inflation and recovery in the construction sector.
“I am also,” he continued, “bothered by the way that operational costs are mixed together with capital costs,” the whole financed by a regressive sales tax that forecloses on the cities’ own capacity to fund public health and safety initiatives.
“It feels as though we are planning for the last 30 years,” City Council member Pinky Vargas observed, in terms of expected levels of crime and rates of incarceration. “Not the next 30 years. I don’t want to carry on the past, and I have an opportunity as a City Council person to help create our future.”
Bellingham’s 6-1 rejection of the jail facility use agreement (JFUA) prompted Whatcom County Sheriff Bill Elfo, for whom a new jail has become obsession and entitlement, to take to the airwaves of KGMI to bitterly denounce the decision and issue ultimatums. Elfo threatened to terminate Bellingham’s contract with the existing jail, suggesting the city should fund its own jail solution. The caucus of small city mayors appeared to concur with his hardline stance.
The force of the Sheriff’s remarks surprised Bellingham Mayor Kelli Linville, who takes pride in the working relationship her administration has forged with the county, prompting her to wonder whether the Sheriff’s hardball represented the official position of the broader county administration.
“The city is not in the business of building and funding jails,” Linville remarked. ”Duplicating facilities, duplicating administrations—that’s not a good use of taxpayer money.”
Linville said “saber rattling” was not helpful, and when it comes down to it the city’s saber is as large as any.
“If the message delivered to me is, ‘We’re still going to try to work things out,’ then we’re on a path to get a group together and start talking,” Linville said. “If the message to me is the same message that Sheriff Elfo gave on the radio, which is basically we’re done talking, and at the end of this year we’re not going to extend your jail agreement, well that’s a whole different response.”
The mayor met with County Executive Jack Louws last week and was pleased to report that while negotiations are uncharacteristically tense, there’s willingness to continue to forge better solutions for a humane, cost-controlled jail.
Louws echoed his commitment to continue to work toward agreement in his remarks to a special work session of County Council this week, but cautioned time was short.
“No disrespect to anyone, but the City of Bellingham rejected the agreement,” Louws reported to County Council. “I was able to work with the mayor to try to identify the underlying principles” but Louws confessed he was able to negotiate no further and remains committed to the county’s original proposal.
Louws sketched three potential financing proposals.
One option is the original proposal of a .2 percent sales tax that, combined with the .1 percent county corrections tax approved by voters in 2005, would generate $550 million for the county over the 30-year term of the levy. A second option would share roughly a quarter of the revenues back to the cities, or up to $106.7 million, to help finance municipal public safety goals. A third option, a hybrid offered by COB, would allow the cities to propose their own sales tax measures that could be used to finance their own public safety goals, including financial agreements that would fund the jail. Louws said the two latter options did not guarantee sufficient revenues to the county that would allow him confidence to support them.
The first option “hits the sweet spot that provides for both of the conditions that we absolutely need to meet that bonding companies are requiring of us to build the jail,” Louws explained. “They want the money to pay for it, and they want to ensure that we have the financial capacity to run it.
“The other options result in a substantial increase in contribution to the jail from Whatcom County’s general fund,” he said, and restrict the county’s ability to meet identified goals.
County Council is committed to placing the measure on the ballot for November. They also appear ready to select the option COB has already rejected, and that therefore forecloses without compromise on any further negotiation or refinement with COB that would allow elected COB leaders to support the ballot measure or sign on to a unified jail facilities use agreement. Truly: a prisoners’ dilemma.
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