Part Six: Introducing the “Need for Speed” in the Illusion of Inclusion
Contributing Writer Juliette Daniels continues her in depth series on Law & Justice in Whatcom County
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>From 2010 to the present, the County Council has allowed 3-minute statements about the jail during open public comments at regularly-scheduled public meetings. Were the citizens heard—or were they just tolerated? The public spoke out for transparency and inclusion, and specifically asked the County to rely on evidence-based research to decide whether (and how) to finance and remodel or build a new jail. Even so, the jail “process” continued to be controlled by the County Executive and was rapidly steered in one direction—toward the horizontal facility in Ferndale envisioned by the County Executive, the Sheriff and the Prosecutor.
Whatcom County now has “zero debt,” according to the County Executive, who is advocating a County debt load of at least $125 million in bonds to build a large scale jail and Sheriff’s Headquarters. The bonds, to be issued no later than 2020, would leave Whatcom County with a minimum of $125 million in debt amortized over 30 years at 4.5%, with an annual payment of $7,673,943.00 and a total payout over the life of the bond of $230 million. This is for construction only, and does not include the operating costs, which are currently estimated at more than $1 Billion over 30 years.
The County Executive has recently stated that his bond estimates will likely be increased as much as $125 million. That would mean initial issuance of $250 million in bonds, doubling the estimated yearly payment to $15 million - not including operating costs.
How is this remotely sustainable in a county with 200,000 citizens?
Whatcom County is in the enviable position of being “debt free.” Why not build on that base? Whatcom County citizens should urge their elected officials to focus on economic development. Whatcom County citizens should hold their elected officials to fiscal discipline: To remodel the current jail without a tax increase and $250 million in debt to be paid by County taxpayers for the next 30 years. In addition, the County and all the cities have additional public safety needs—beyond construction and operation costs of the jail. If a new jail tax passes, then there will be no further tax increases allowed under the Jail Use Tax provision for public safety needs.
There is no disagreement that the downtown jail is harmful to both inmates and staff. However, the sheriff continues to repeat that the only answer is a new jail. That is not so. We already have two jails. The downtown jail should have been repaired and renovated many years ago. It can still be renovated and used to house violent offenders. The second jail, our current 10-year old 150-bed minimum security jail on Division Street can continue to operate as a minimum security facility to house non-violent and low-level offenders. This facility is currently substantially under-utilized. [April 13, 2017 meeting of the Incarceration and Prevention Task Force].
The County Executive has used high pressure negotiation tactics to urge a “need for speed” on getting the cities onboard a new JFUA, along with agreement in principle to the sales tax and at least $125-250 million in bonds as the funding mechanism to pay for the jail complex on LaBounty Road. This is a continuation of the same approach the County Executive and Sheriff have used since 2008 to push their jail plan forward—without true public support and citizen buy-in.
Without ever having done the foundational work to determine viable alternatives, the Sheriff and County Executive continue to repeat that Whatcom County needs a new jail. The Executive has used the Jail Stakeholders Group to pressure the signatories to the Jail Facility Users Agreement (JFUA), and Bellingham elected officials in particular, by claiming that since the defeat of Proposition 2015-1, “we’ve lost about $18 million worth of hard dollars,” or $12 million in construction costs on the new jail complex and about $7 million in the current jail. He has argued that adding interest on that amount over 30 years means the taxpayers have actually lost $35 million over the two-year delay (caused by the voters’ rejection of Proposition 2015-1). [January 26, 2017: Jail Stakeholder’s Workgroup meeting].
Nobody has questioned and confirmed those numbers, or the conclusion reached. The Executive further said that two years ago he could have sat in the mayor’s seats in all 7 of the cities and signed the then-proposed Jail Facility Users Agreement (JFUA). No doubt if he could have, he would have. Instead, the County failed to reach an agreement with Bellingham on the JFUA prior to the November 2015 election. In addition, nobody in the Jail Stakeholder’s Workgroup is questioning the Executive’s (and the Sheriff’s) basic assumption that replacement of the two jails we already have with a new facility on LaBounty Road in Ferndale is our only option.
Mayor Linville has said Bellingham is dedicated to alternatives to jail (and has successfully implemented alternatives) and asked what the County planned to do to keep jail costs down. The County Executive responded that the County had fewer options to lower jail costs. He said the cities could lower their jail usage, but the County would still be responsible for the fixed cost of running that unit—which is “quite static.” He deflected the question by stating that there were fewer options for the County to lower bed days because of County responsibilities over felons. In other words—to answer the Mayor’s question: Nothing.
The County Executive failed to acknowledge that the County also arrests and incarcerates low-level offenders that could also benefit from the same alternatives used by the City of Bellingham to reduce incarceration.
The Sheriff and County Executive supported creation of the Jail Planning Task Force in 2011 and then cherry-picked the Task Force’s final recommendations while the Executive and Sheriff continued at full speed to move their jail plan forward.
In 2010, the County and its consultant HDR prepared a 2010 Draft Environmental Impact Statement “DEIS.” The County allowed written comments to be submitted until November 19, 2010, but these comments were never addressed. The County declined to have a “public meeting to receive comments on this DEIS and said the “Proposed action” (i.e. selection of the site) would be “addressed by the Whatcom County Council in a future open session.” That open session never happened. The County initially identified 9 candidate sites, and then studied only two final candidate sites for further evaluation. Site 4 (71.8 acres under private ownership) and Site 5 (154.7 acres owned by the Department of Natural Resources).
In response to intense public pressure (including a petition signed by 70 people) the Council finally held (on February 3, 2011) what it called a “public comment meeting,” attended by more than three hundred Whatcom County citizens—overwhelmingly opposed to the DEIS and the proposed scale and cost of the Jail as described in the DEIS as follows:
The County anticipates that the proposed Adult Corrections Facilities and Sheriff’s Headquarters would be built in three phases: It is estimated that Phase 1 would open in or about 2015, Phase II in or about 2025, and Phase III in or about 2050. When Phase III was completed, the facilities would provide space for up to 2,450 male and female adult inmates.
See DEIS, October 18, 2010, page S-1.
It was because of this extreme public pressure that the Whatcom County Jail Planning Task Force was created. The County promised to provide the Task Force with an accurate Needs Assessment. That never happened. The Task Force members were selected by the County and a new site “selection” process and selection of a “Jail Planner” was thereafter initiated and then controlled by the Sheriff and the County Executive. Instead of hiring a Jail Planner as contemplated by the Task Force, the Sheriff and Executive hired DLR, another jail planning contractor to again customize a site and facility with criteria provided by the Executive and Sheriff.
As the County moved forward, key recommendations by the Jail Planning Task Force would be ignored, such as:
(1) implementation of public participation measures because “public involvement in planning for a new jail is critical;”
(2) recommendation that “space be found for a Mental Health Triage Facility with sufficient capacity and capability to offer pre-booking diversion from jail;” and
(3) implementation of diversion and alternatives to incarceration.
Déjà vu: The County Executive Branch and DLR select the LaBounty Road Property as the “Preferred Site” (or more accurately the only site) for a new Jail and Sheriff’s Headquarters and failed to provide any other alternative to the Council
The County “used” the Jail Planning Task Force Final Report to the Whatcom County Council to initiate the “selection” of a “Jail Planner,” as recommended. DLR was chosen by the County Executive and Sheriff (and then recommended to the Council), following an alleged RFQ 12-50 that was online from June 27, 2012 to August 7, 2012.
(in June 2012), the County (through its Jail Site Selection Committee) had issued a “Request for Property Proposals” for a new jail site, which was answered on July 30, 2012, with a proposal from Ronald T. Jepson (as a Member of LaBounty Road LLC) offering the 40-acre site on LaBounty Road in Ferndale (with no specified proposed purchase price on the property). Within one week of Mr. Jepson’s submission for review of the LaBounty Road property, the Jail Planner RFQ was closed. The Sheriff and the Executive recommended DLR to the Council as their choice for Jail Planner, then they hand-picked the LaBounty Road Property as the only viable location for their new jail. DLR cooperated with a design custom fit to that site. See DLR Group, Whatcom County Adult Corrections Facilities & Sheriff’s Headquarters Pre-Design Report (September 26, 2013).
The next segment of “The Need for Speed” will continue to follow the County’s rapid progress down a single path toward mass incarceration—without careful consideration of alternatives—including renovation of the downtown jail.