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Part Four: The Illusion of Inclusion

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Whatcom County authorizes millions to be paid to jail industry consultant HDR to design and promote the County Executive’s and Sheriff’s plan for jail expansion

On July 13, 2004 (four months before the second proposed Jail tax was even on the ballot), the County Council approved payment of $925,800.00 to HDR under a new contract for design, planning and construction administration of the 150-bed Whatcom County Minimum Security Jail and Community Correction Center on Division Street (now called the County Interim Work Center). In addition, HDR was paid another $24,426.00 to “review possible sites for a regional justice center in the City of Bellingham or the Urban Grown Area of the City of Bellingham.”

The total amount for HDR’s services on this project (not including construction costs) was $950,226.00. At the same meeting, the Council approved submission to the County voters of a Proposition authorizing another increase (in addition to the 1998 Jail tax) to the local sales and use tax of one tenth of one percent to provide funds for building, operating, maintaining remodeling, repairing …etc., jail facilities [the 2004 Jail Tax]. The tax increase was marketed to the voters as funding for the Division Street 150-bed minimum-security Jail facility.

The Whatcom County Executive and Sheriff dictate jail site selection criteria and use HDR to promote the illusion of the inevitability of their proposed large scale Jail and Sheriff’s Headquarters

Out of the total $950,226.00 contract to HDR for work designing the new Minimum Security Jail on Division Street, the County allotted HDR $24,426.00 to work on site selection for a new main jail or “regional justice center.” Councilmember Caskey-Schreiber noted that for $24,426, the Council would get only a general review of feasible sites. She proposed that HDR focus on downtown sites. That was the original intent of the Council. [July 13, 2004, County Council Minutes, p. 12]. That intent has been forgotten or ignored completely as the elected County Executive, Prosecuting Attorney and Sheriff have continued to push through—and past—any opposition to the large-scale horizontal jail and sheriff’s headquarters proposed by the Sheriff and County Executive (and supported or enabled by numerous other County officials and staff).

In 2007 (one year after completion of the Minimum Security Jail on Division Street), the County entered into a third contract with HDR to provide “Site Selection Services for Whatcom County Adult Corrections Facilities and Sheriff’s Headquarters Project.” Now the idea was floated that the Minimum Security Jail on Division Street would be temporary, and going forward would be called “the Interim Work Center,” to drive home the point that eventually it would be replaced by a large-scale (multi-security level) horizontal jail. HDR’s third contract with the County (plus amendments) was for payment of $812,166.00 for site selection services and minimal services related to integration of the Sheriff’s Headquarters into the large scale jail design (Whatcom County Contract Nos. 200711045; 200711045-1; 200711045-2; 200712035; and 200804013-1). It is important to note, that not a single HDR contract appears to have been the result of an open/public RFP or Bid process.

The 2010 HDR Report (which was the work product from its $812,166.00 contract) describes the so-called site selection “process.” The selected sites were identified by a joint “Whatcom County Review Committee” (WCRC) and the “HDR Evaluation Team.” [2010 HDR Report, p. ES-1]. Members of the Whatcom County Review Committee were not specifically identified in the report or in available public records. HDR reported that “The County” identified the desired site attributes and its goals and objectives for the new facility and that the WCRC and HDR agreed upon a “site evaluation methodology.” There is no identification of the individuals within the County leadership that determined the site and facility criteria for the purposes of the HDR Site Evaluation Report. It appears that the site selection criteria and proposals were made wholly without public input by:

(1) The Whatcom County Administrative Services Department (which reports to the County Executive),
(2) The Sheriff’s Office, and
(3) the Whatcom County Facilities Management Division (which also reports directly to the County Executive). [See 2010 HDR Report, p. 1].

The County site criteria automatically eliminated consideration any downtown Bellingham location near the Courthouse or the already existing Jail. It also eliminated any evaluation of renovation of the Jail as a viable option. In addition, HDR made (non-public) presentations to the Sheriff’s Department and Facilities Management regarding the “advantages of horizontal jails versus vertical jails.” The conclusion of these presentations was that a horizontal jail met more of the criteria developed by the County, including a 50-acre site with sheriff’s headquarters and potential to expand to a 2000 plus bed capacity. Again, the agreed-upon criteria foreclosed any possibility that the County would (or could) consider a downtown location or renovation of the current jail. The elimination of the use of any downtown location was made entirely by the County and by its hired consultant HDR. There was no apparent coordination with the County Seat—Bellingham—or any involvement/engagement with the citizens of the County.

In effect, the HDR Report simply reflected the views of the County, and more particularly, the Sheriff and the County Executive. HDR stated that nine sites had been identified [2010 HDR Report, Figure 1] and that “seven of the candidate sites were evaluated and then eliminated because they did not meet the site evaluation criteria.” [2010 HDR Report, p. ES-1]. With respect to candidate sites in the City of Bellingham, HDR stated:

Sites A and B are immediately north and south, respectively, of the existing Whatcom County Courthouse and are owned by the County. Each site is within 1 mile of Bellingham High School and Whatcom Middle School, and each is less than 2 acres in size. Thus, each site violates the 1-mile separation requirement from public and private schools as specified in the siting criteria within Whatcom County’s Comprehensive Plan, Chapter 2, Policy 2xx-7. The Sheriff has conceded that these provisions (since revised) apply only to new corrections facilities built in unincorporated Whatcom County. The site areas are also substantially smaller than the 60-acre minimum required for a horizontal layout. Consequently, Sites A and B were eliminated from further consideration. [2010 HDR Report, p. 21][Emphasis added].

With one paragraph, HDR—as the County proxy—eliminated already county-owned property located in the County Seat, adjacent to the County Justice Center—near the Courts, Judges, attorneys, Court Administrators, bail-bond companies and other necessary supporting services. The site size requirement has now jumped to 60 acres (since HDR drafted the Executive Summary of its own report), virtually guaranteeing the inability to find a site in the County Seat. In addition, there’s an inference that siting an Essential Public Building like the Jail within 1 mile of any public or private school is illegal and contrary to the Whatcom County Comprehensive Plan. That is a misrepresentation of the relevant provisions, which do not preclude renovation of the current jail, or construction of a new jail in downtown Bellingham.

There is no evidence-based need to move the Downtown County Jail

Our public debate about the jail should be based upon facts, and not fear-mongering. There is no legal impediment to the renovation of the Jail, or to construction of a new main jail facility in downtown Bellingham close to the Civic and Justice Center, where the jail has existed since the 1940s. Bellingham High School was constructed in 1938. Whatcom Middle School (then a high school) was first constructed in 1903, making it the oldest existing school building in the Bellingham School District. The first jail was constructed in the Civic Center of Bellingham in 1949. The current jail was completed in 1983—with no objections to being too close to long-standing public schools, including Bellingham High School and Whatcom Middle School.

Further, to state that the public’s safety is compromised by location of the jail in the civic and justice center of Bellingham is to promote another false argument lacking any factual foundation. There is no history of an incident that resulted in a public safety threat emanating from the downtown jail and affecting any public or private school within a mile (or even a quarter mile) of the Jail. The safety threats arise from the conditions inside the jail, and endanger inmates and Jail staff. There is no documented or reasonable safety threat to the public from the downtown Bellingham jail related to its proximity to schools, churches, museums, the public library or other retail establishments that serve the public.

The Whatcom County Comprehensive Plan adopted in August 2016 has this provision relevant to the siting of new correction facilities within unincorporated Whatcom County:

Within unincorporated Whatcom County, new correction facilities should be sited in accordance with all of the following principles. New facilities should be located:

• With convenient access to major transportation corridors;
• With convenient access to frequent transit service;
• In areas that will not create excessive traffic, noise, or glare impacts on surrounding residential properties;
• In areas that have access to adequate utilities and infrastructure;
• In areas where there is convenient access to the courts, the sheriff’s office, law offices, medical services, fire protection services, and community & social services.
• Outside the 100-year floodplain;• Outside seismic hazard areas. If no suitable sites are available outside of seismic hazard areas, correction facilities may be located within such areas if adequate mitigation measures are undertaken;
• Outside of landslide hazard areas;
• Outside of mine hazard areas;
• Outside of alluvial fans;
• Outside the 65 DNL noise contour of airports;
• At least 500’ from gas pipelines with a maximum 2 operating pressure 500 or greater pounds/square inch 3 gage (psig);
• At least 100’ from gas pipelines with a maximum operating pressure between 251 – 499 psig; 6 • At least one quarter mile from public and private schools

The land use provisions used by opponents of a new (or renovated) downtown jail facility only apply to construction of a new jail facility in “unincorporated Whatcom County,” yet the County and HDR incorporated these provisions into their siting criteria, along with the 50-60 acre minimum site size and a horizontal (rather than vertical) building design.

The City of Bellingham has its own criteria to evaluate proposed “Essential Public Facilities” within City limits:

The city may approve, or approve with modifications, an application for a proposed essential public facility based on subsections (A) through (I) of this section.

A. Whether there is a public need for the facility;
B. The impact of the facility on the surrounding uses and environment, the city, and the region.
C. Whether the design of the facility or the operation of the facility can be conditioned, or the impacts otherwise mitigated, to make the facility compatible with the affected area and the environment.
D. Whether a package of incentives can be developed that would make siting the facility within the community more acceptable.
E. Whether the factors that make the facility difficult to site can be modified to increase the range of available sites or to minimize impacts on affected areas and the environment.
F. Whether the proposed essential public facility is consistent with the Bellingham comprehensive plan.
G. If a variance is requested, the proposal shall also comply with the variance criteria.
H. Essential public facilities shall comply with any applicable state siting and permitting requirements (e.g., hazardous waste facilities).
I. A financial analysis of the proposed facility’s impact on the city of Bellingham’s budget shall be completed by the organization proposing the essential public facility. If the study shows that locating a facility in a community would result in a disproportionate financial burden on the city, an agreement to mitigate the adverse financial impact shall be required. [Ord. 2006-07-068].

See the City of Bellingham Municipal Code, Title 20 Land Use Development, Chapter 17 Essential Public Facilities, Section 20.17.060.

Ten years after the Law and Justice Council first recommended remodeling the downtown Bellingham County Jail the County had failed to undertake any comprehensive analysis of that option, or to consider another potential alternative—building a new jail on already County-owned property in the downtown Bellingham area.

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 [...]

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