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General Fund v Sales Tax
Total Funding

Vote NO on the New Jail Tax

In November, Whatcom County voters will again consider giving the County an extra 0.2 percent sales tax “for public safety purposes, including costs associated with financing, construction, maintenance, and operation of jail facilities, and incarceration prevention programs, including medical and behavioral health facilities and programs.”

In 2015, County voters rejected a similar request from the County for an increase in the Jail Sales and Use Tax. There are even more reasons today to reject the County’s second request for a 0.2 percent increase in the Jail Use and Sales tax.

At this point, Whatcom County taxpayers are already paying $15.7 million yearly in extra sales taxes for criminal justice, public safety, and behavioral and mental health services. Specifically, County citizens now pay: (1) 0.1 percent sales tax for criminal justice purposes (RCW 82.14.340 – imposed in 1999 by County Ordinance); (2) 0.1 percent sales tax for juvenile detention facilities and jails (RCW 82.14.350 – “2004 Jail Tax” approved by voters in 2004); (3) 0.1 percent sales tax for public safety purposes (RCW 82.14.450 – approved by voters in 2005, 2/3 for EMS and 1/3 for criminal justice purposes); and (4) 0.1 percent sales tax for behavioral and mental health purposes (RCW 82.14.460 – approved by voters in 2008).

The $15.7 million in extra sales taxes were the 2016 collections. For more information on these local taxes, refer to the Washington Department of Revenue website: https://fortress.wa.gov/dor/efile/statistics/localtax

Now the County seeks more money with a request that County voters approve another increase in sales taxes in November. IF the requested additional .2 percent increase passes in November then County citizens will be paying an additional $7.77 million yearly—money that comes directly from the discretionary income of already financially overburdened Whatcom County residents. IF this latest proposed tax measure passes, then starting in 2018 all the above criminal justice/public safety taxes will generate approximately $24.2 million a year to the County and the Cities—over and above the money already raised via property taxes and allocated to the jail and other criminal justice purposes. Consider that in 30 years, these sales taxes will have cost taxpayers a total of $1.1 BILLION (raising $50.9 million a year in 2048; projected at a standard 2.5 percent yearly increase).

Without the added 0.2 percent tax up for a vote on the November 2017 ballot, the County would continue to receive a yearly revenue stream of approximately $15.7 million from the already existing extra criminal justice, public safety and behavioral mental health taxes. That is enough: Voters should reject the County’s ask for an additional 0.2 percent sales tax in November 2017, because the County seeks a sales tax increase to generate excess revenue that the County does not need.

1. The county already collects enough taxes to provide a safe and humane jail

The County Executive negotiated an Interlocal Jail Facility Financing and Use Agreement (the “JFFUA”) (http://meetings.cob.org/sirepub/agdocs.aspx?doctype=agenda&itemid=10821) that included provisions to divide among the County and Cities the EXCESS tax revenues (over and above the proposed bond payments) that will be collected IF the November 2017 ballot measure for the sales tax passes. In other words, each party to the JFFUA gets a cut of tax collections over and above what is needed to build or renovate the jail. In the 30-year bond repayment period, this will amount to approximately $155 million in EXCESS revenue that can be spent for ANY “public safety” purpose. Under the JFFUA the County collects 60 percent of this excess, with the remaining 40 percent divided among the cities, including Bellingham.

This was the carrot held out by the County to move each of the cities to ratify the JFFUA. However, there is no need for our County and city governments to grow—in this way—at the expense of the taxpayers.

In addition, in 2004, County voters approved a 0.1 percent sales tax increase to pay for a new jail (the “2004 Jail Tax”). The 2004 Jail Tax will raise approximately $4.2 million in 2018 and likely more every year thereafter, which would almost fully cover the projected share of the County bond payments on either a complete renovation of the current jails or a new jail. Further, in the same 30-year time period covered by the JFUA, the 2004 Jail Tax will raise at least $198 million—for a total of approximately $353 million above what is needed for capital expenditures to either repay a bond or renovate the existing jails.

2. The Elected Officials asking for higher sales taxes seem to be supporting an increasing and unnecessary transfer of wealth from already burdened individual taxpayers to fund bigger government: The County must explore alternatives to a new Jail

The County’s primary stated use for the funds collected from taxpayers is to build a new Jail Facility on LaBounty Road in Ferndale, on land purchased in 2013 for $6 million—a price almost certainly well above the property’s Fair Market Value. The proposed 32,000 square foot Sheriff’s Headquarters (on the same property) would be funded with bonds paid by other revenue streams. The County’s elected officials and administration have failed to fully explore feasible alternatives to an increase in the transfer of wealth from increasingly burdened county taxpayers to bigger government. Responsible County governance should include an immediate halt of jail expansion plans to fully consider those alternatives. That is how a fiscally-responsible business would be run. We should expect no less from our local County government.

Importantly, Walmart, Costco, Lowes and other large County retail outlets won’t pay these sales taxes—but their customers will pay. BP, Phillips 66, Arco and Intalco won’t pay these sales taxes. The jail sales taxes are imposed on the consumer, not the retailer or manufacturer. The proposed tax increase would force the 20 percent of taxpayers with the lowest incomes to pay more than twice the rate of the top 1 percent of taxpayers in Whatcom County—taking $9 million out of the pockets of our individual taxpayers to hand-over to government. That is the definition of a regressive tax, and Washington State leads the nation as having the most regressive tax structure. So the proposed transfer of wealth from taxpayers to county government will disproportionately hit the poor and middle class.

The proposed tax increase would result in an 8.9 percent sales tax—the same as Bellevue, Washington (population 141,000). Bellevue’s median household income is $100,000.00 (Average: $128,000.00)—far above Whatcom County’s median household income of $50,000.00 (Average $63,000.00). The County’s $50,000 median income means that half of our wage earners make less than $50,000. This increased sales tax would make it even more difficult for many Whatcom County citizens who are already hard pressed to purchase necessities.

3. The downtown County Jail can be renovated successfully to house maximum security inmates and the Division Street Correction Facility is suitable for all other inmates

Years of neglect of the downtown County Jail has been used by our elected officials and others to repeat the contention that the only answer is construction of a $110 – 230 million new Jail (the County has nothing close to a firm estimate) and a 32,000 square foot new Sheriff’s Headquarters. Yet, the County has never explored cost-effective feasible alternatives. There are feasible alternatives. Additional taxes are unnecessary to address the problems at the existing downtown maximum security County Jail or the minimum security Irongate facility on Division Street.

4. Whether or not a new jail is built the downtown County Jail will be renovated to reach legal compliance for safety and humane treatment of staff and inmates

Part of the County’s calculation of the ultimate cost of the proposed new jail includes necessary renovation of the existing downtown County jail to make it safe, humane and legal. For years, by the Sheriff and County Executive’s repeated admissions, the County Jail has been operated in an unsafe and inhumane manner. It is an absurd irony that the County has for years deferred maintenance on the downtown jail, only to advocate spending millions now to renovate it—just before it is then demolished (at unknown cost) by the County after a new jail is built on LaBounty Road. The County is willing to renovate the downtown jail only now, even though there was never any real impediment to maintenance and repair of the County Jail before. There has been apparent failure over time to submit appropriate work orders to address items of deferred maintenance identified in the County-commissioned 2016 Design2Last report. (http://www.co.whatcom.wa.us/DocumentCenter/Home/View/23949)

Recently, the Sheriff has said he’s only in charge of operations, not facilities maintenance. He has pointed to both the County Council and the County’s Facilities Maintenance Department as responsible for not requesting or funding needed repairs. Regardless of the finger-pointing, the Design2Last report supports the viability of repair and renovation of the existing downtown jail for use as a maximum security facility for violent offenders, as it was originally intended. That would immediately reduce the jail population and overcrowding, as non-violent offenders could then be transferred to the minimum security Irongate facility on Division Street—which is in excellent condition according to Design2Last—and is chronically underutilized.

We already have two structurally sound jails—one for maximum security offenders and another for all other inmates. A complete renovation of the existing downtown Jail would also involve renovation of the Sheriff’s Headquarters. We do not need to build a third sprawling jail/prison complex in Ferndale, with a new 32,000 square foot Sheriff’s Department.

5. The full renovation of the County Jail is a logical and cost-effective permanent solution

Since the existing downtown jail needs to be repaired anyway, why not fully renovate it (at a price we can afford) and make it a permanent solution for violent offenders as it was originally intended? We already have two jails, with at least 364 available beds. Our County government has not fully vetted this option as an alternative to increasing sales taxes unnecessarily. Instead, the County proposes spending an unspecified sum for construction of a new jail.

Moreover—to further the absurd ironies—after the jail is renovated then demolished (under the County’s current plan), a Sally port and another jail facility must be constructed adjacent to the Courthouse to hold inmates waiting for court appearances, hearings and trials, or for booking prior to transport to the new jail in Ferndale. Inmates will then be subject to transport to and from the Ferndale Jail and the downtown jail facility increasing costs and liabilities to the taxpayers. This plan is illogical.

It begs the question of whether the only reason to renovate and then demolish the existing downtown Jail is to justify the construction of a new 32,000 square foot Sheriff’s Headquarters on LaBounty Road.

The County needs to be held accountable to steward its tax dollars and explore common sense alternatives to the current plan—that to date has no reliable scope or cost estimates.

6. The County Jail Planning Process has been done out-of-order and counter to the best interests of Whatcom County Citizens

The County and City Councils have been pushed to accept the County’s hired jail planners’ work done out-of-order—at great expense—and in isolation of the Incarceration Prevention and Reduction Task Force work. The County and City Councils also pre-empted the Vera Institute preliminary report and excluded the citizens’ concerns all along—the essence of the “Illusion of Inclusion.” See the 8-part series “The Illusion of Inclusion.” (http://bit.ly/2vResDm)

The County’s three top elected officials—the Prosecuting Attorney, the Sheriff and the Executive—have pushed their jail plan with no consideration of the financial impact on average citizens or the potential benefits of reforms or improvements to our local criminal justice system in determining the size, location or cost of the jail.

The County has underestimated the power of informed voters, who demand data and evidence to reach a conclusion on the correct path. Bellingham has saved significant funds with implementation of—among other things—alternatives to incarceration. The rush to get the current proposal on the November ballot didn’t allow meaningful discussion of the preliminary findings and work being done by the Vera Institute and the Incarceration Prevention and Reduction Task Force on diversion and alternatives to incarceration.

Informed voters know that without data, we are being asked to increase the County sales taxes and support and sign-off on a facility whose actual size and cost is unknown. We are being asked to increase the sales tax without adequate examination of viable and cost-effective alternatives. Logically, voters should reject this approach: Say no to more taxes. Instead, encourage interagency collaboration and coordination to address the underlying systemic drivers of jail population growth within our local criminal justice system.

As the Vera Institute concluded:

Any attempt to ease overcrowding by building a new facility or expanding the current one will not address the underlying causes of population growth, and the new facility will quickly become overcrowded. Criminal justice and community stakeholders must work together to achieve a safe, sustainable, and fair justice system.

[July 10, 2017 Vera Institute of Justice Report, p. 9].

Attached Files

About Juliette Daniels

Writer • Member since May 11, 2017

Juliette is a licensed attorney in both Washington state and Texas. After spending 15 years working in litigation for two large Houston law firms, she moved to Bellingham in 2004 and eventually [...]

Comments by Readers

Joy Gilfilen

Sep 08, 2017

Excellent article, with solid rationale behind it. 

 

Dianne Foster

Oct 13, 2017
The whole thing is so corrupt,  it leaves me speechless.     Why is there no criminal investigation of the Jacked-up price of the land deal? &

The whole thing is so corrupt,  it leaves me speechless.     Why is there no criminal investigation of the Jacked-up price of the land deal?    And what happened to the insurance bond paid on the last,  fairly recently-built jail?   (my house was built in 1903,  and has no structural problems -  works great).

Larry Horowitz

Oct 21, 2017

In my email inbox today: LINK

 

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