Amy Glasser with cardboard cutout of a friend.

That Big, Flat, Rural Jail or Regional Detention Center?

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I don’t really know Amy Glasser, but I’m starting to like her. She recently sent a letter to the County Council, asking some pointed questions about the highly questionable property acquisition for the proposed new county mega-jail. A subject of great interest to me. Some commentary follows her letter.

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26 December 2016
ATTN: Whatcom County Council
311 Grand Street
Bellingham, WA 98225

Re: LaBounty Road property bought for the proposed jail site 2012 and response to Trump invoice sent.

Dear Council,

I have been reviewing the documents regarding the purchasing of the property that the County Administrator, Sheriff’s Department and County Prosecutor’s office advocated for. I have been unable to find any document on line that could tell me about the previous owners’ purchase of the property such as the purchase price and the sale price. It appears that the discussion about the property was kept behind closed doors and the public was never informed about the process or how a decision was made to spend so much money before the jail was approved by the voters. Several people have tried to get more information but somehow documents have been lost. Strange to say the least.

It is now about 4 years later and the public has not been begging for that mega jail and in fact there is more and more research to prove that incarceration is not the answer to crime and in many cases people end up in jail for long periods of time just because they cannot afford bail. The others are in jail because they have substance abuse or mental health problems best treated outside the confines of a jail. The answer is more about housing, substance abuse treatment, mental health treatment, social supports and assistance in job training and placement. Continuing to go in the direction of keeping a 40 acre parcel (of which only 30 can be used due to mitigation) and building a mega jail complex with a 30,000 square foot Sheriff’s complex is not in the best interest of the community both financially or socially or in any crime prevention aspect either. Jail costs more than private college and certainly more than housing and services.

As I was reading more about the cost of the property and the required mitigation on that land, it seems unusual that the county would purchase that property when the comp properties were way under the average square footage as noted in the property appraisal. The appraisal was still below what was paid when the appraisal used 6 comp properties to figure out the market value when only 3 of the properties were actually sold. What we spent was significantly more than anything else around at the time and even now. I can’t figure out why it was bought and why it was bought without any public input.

In addition to not needing 30+ acres, the location in Ferndale did not consider visitors inability to get to the location easily or for transport to and from the courthouse. Those man hours of transport and vehicle requirements and security requirements would be unnecessary if the county and cities involved would just fix the old jail as it should have been fixed over the past 10-15 years. It won’t be cost effective since you have to fix the old jail anyway because there won’t be a new jail for several years and there are current risks already. Why not fix what we have and if required, build an extension across the street above the parking lot. As the jail is fixed, you can use space at the new minimum security facility where there is triage ability and empty beds and fix the current facility in pieces.

As we proceed to using the county money more efficiently when it comes to law and order, I strongly suggest the county sell the property and start again with a proper assessment, like the one either being proposed or already underway by the Vera Institute. We spend way too much on law and order and it is not helping the people it was meant to help nor the community it was charged to protect.

We have been saving millions for a new jail over past years and I suggest the county consider an alternative type of project that can save money, help offenders, prevent incarceration and keep the community become safer such as the Restorative Community Coalition programs. We have the money to try something more innovative than putting the same people in jail over and over again for the same reasons and expecting different results.

Thank you and please let me know what else I can do to get this considered.

On another topic, has the county ever received any response to the invoices sent out regarding the Trump Rally security costs? Has anyone asked Mr. Doug Erickson directly if he will be getting the money reimbursed to the county? What can I do to make sure someone follows up with at a minimum, Mr. Erickson.

Respectfully

Amy Glasser, MSW, LICSW
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Glaser complains that she was, “…unable to find any document on line that could tell me about the previous owners’ purchase of the property such as the purchase price and the sale price.” I ran into the same problem and had to go to the assessors office to learn that the parcel number and geo-codes had been changed, leaving a blank slate on the sales history.

In an earlier article I found that the parcel number of the Jepson/Janicki jail property proposal wouldn’t search in the county’s property database. So I did a brute force search on LaBounty and found a new parcel number. However, the new parcel number shows only the most recent sale to the county and the current assessment - prior sales history were disappeared with the old parcel number. I went to the assessor’s office and tried to get a bit further but ran aground, except that a component parcel appears to have belonged to Charles Wilder, registered at an Arizona address that when searched in Google maps displays an elementary school in New River, AZ. I never really got to the bottom of it, except I discovered the property was subject to a significant environmental investigation when the Recomp garbage incinerator used it as an ash dump and polluted a nearby fishing lake.

Glasser further expresses concern that “…building a mega jail complex with a 30,000 square foot Sheriff’s complex is not in the best interest of the community both financially or socially or in any crime prevention aspect…”, and that “What we spent was significantly more than anything else around at the time and even now.” These are excellent points. As discussed in the previously referenced article, “An analysis of 14 land assessments on eight parcels surrounding the jail property produced an average value of $30,212 per acre. The jail property itself is assessed at $44,329 per acre. Why did the county pay $149,468 per acre?”

Underlying this concern is the fact that the county administration lied about the advantages of a Big, Flat, Rural Jail over fixing the existing jail or building a new multi-story jail near the courthouse. In another article I reference a county document rationalizing the choice. This facile and intentionally misleading analysis cites jail planning guidelines published by the Department of Justice and the National Institute of Corrections. Contrary to the county’s conclusions, these documents actually state that, “Historically, most jails were built next to the courthouse to allow the easy transfer of inmates to and from court. That proximity is still desirable today…If land is available adjacent to the downtown jail, the jurisdiction probably will choose to build a multistory structure to accommodate the desired capacity” and their Jail Design Guide states: “Maintaining efficient and secure movement of inmates between the jail and the courts may be the single most critical linkage. A direct physical connection is most desirable…,” and further cautioning that, “The impact of the facility location on staffing results primarily from the need to transport inmates between jail and court. A significant amount of staff time can be consumed by this task, possibly to the point of requiring more personnel.” The county owns vacant land all around the courthouse.

Why did we pay an exorbitant rate for more land than we need in one of the most polluted corners of Whatcom County? It should not go unnoticed that the property is nearly next door to property our county executive sold at a huge profit to Homeland Security and which is easily accessible from the two private law enforcement entrances to the airport complex, and the Joint Operations Command Center. Under President Trump, might we expect more support for a regional detention center? And then what, another wall?

In any case, I welcome Glasser’s questions, as should any taxpayer concerned with this county administration’s squandering of public money with a project that could perpetually obligate all discretionary revenue in law enforcement or potentially bankrupt the county. And it is well past time for the county’s policy makers to rein in this potentially tragic boondoggle.

There is a lot of undercurrent to this issue and much of it has been documented here in the past. The elapsed time has perhaps submerged these currents somewhat deeper, but vigilant citizens would be well advised to start dredging them back up. Search this site for ‘Whatcom County Jail’ if you want to read more. If you, like Ms Glasser, understandably start to feel confused, I urge you to also ask your questions to the folks we elected to represent us. There are groups focused on these issues that struggle to not be ignored. Average citizen input is often the only key to shining light on the darkest elements of bad government.

About Tip Johnson

Writer • Member since Jan 11, 2008

Tip Johnson is a longtime citizen interest advocate with a record of public achievement projects for good government and the environment. A lifelong student of government, Tip served two terms [...]