The jail proposal is wrought with troubling contradictions. The only way to prevent a massive misappropriation of public funds - a tax heist - is to vote down Prop. 2015-1 and start over on a downtown jail, next to the courthouse with good programs out front to keep folks out of jail. Just google criminal justice reform. Everybody’s doing it. Just not here.
Proponents say the jail is crumbling, that important structural supports were removed from the basement when the sheriff turned a storage area into offices. Amazingly, the building shows no outward signs of decay. It is straight and square, without cracks or evidence of strain. According to reports from construction savvy folks unfortunate enough to have spent some time inside, there is little interior evidence of actual failure, other than shoddy plumbing, electrical and ventilation systems that probably were never properly installed and which evidently have not been competently maintained. Voters already approved a tax to improve the jail, but despite that resource, the administration has apparently decided it was not a priority. Even more interesting is the extreme disinterest the county has exhibited for actually assessing the damage, planning improvements or implementing repairs. It’s just not a priority. It appears there have been no studies or plans or cost estimates developed to compare. The county instead plans to tear it down. They must really want that big, flat, remote (BFR) jail.
Because of problems stemming from neglect and mismanagement, those who want a new jail say the current one is overcrowded and inhumane. But it is also apparently not a priority to follow the law that provides for remedying the problems. Instead, they’ve stuffed it with as many prisoners as possible and held them for as long as possible, driving stats in the direction that bolsters their argument - amazingly exactly the opposite of statewide numbers showing declines in crime and bookings. They can make it happen - only in Whatcom County.
And then there's the overcrowding. The restorative justice folks have identified 15 ways the jail is kept packed: sweeping up the poor and homeless who linger for lack of bail, stacking charges that complicate hearings, postponing hearings for clerical reasons, and affording inmates less “good time” credit that even state prisons allow. Jail proponents tout their expenditures on diversionary programs but are careful not to distinguish between pre-and post-booking programs, even though their own staff stresses the importance and necessity of the former.
Speaking of jail taxes, we also passed a tax for mental health services. According to sources in agencies thus concerned, none of the $3+ million collected annually seems to have actually made its way to the streets to benefit the people getting swept into the jail. The agencies were, however, quietly warned that opposing the jail project could jeopardize their other funding. That is truly bad form and should not be rewarded.
No matter where you look, the jail proposal doesn’t pass the smell test - literally.
Sheriff Elfo is on record stating he is unable to provide fresh outside air to his inmates as required by law. Therefore, he asserts it is better to move the entire operation into a BFR jail in one of the darkest holes between Bellingham and Ferndale - immediately adjacent and downwind of an animal rendering plant, an industrial incinerator, a scrap yard running heavy diesel equipment, a municipal solid waste staging area, a garbage dump and an industrial smokestack, sandwiched between a railroad with diesel locomotives hauling coal and bomb trains and an interstate highway, directly under the landing path of the nearby airport. Brilliant! But it sounds more like hot air than fresh air.
Details of the land acquisition are a bit smelly, too. Besides the fact that the sale of Jack Louws nearby property to Homeland Security set an unprecedented comparable-value benchmark, there are other questionable issues. The county bought 39 acres at $150k each, but can only use 29 due to wetland and archeological issues. They expect to develop just under 20 acres. Available immediately across the street is a 25 acre parcel without wetland encumbrances. Both properties are served by the same utilities and were appraised by the same appraiser. Guess what? The property across the street is $2 million less expensive. Perhaps it is the proximity to the rendering plant that adds value to the county’s favored property?
There’s more. This property wended its way from Wilder to the county through a series of shell corporations. Some of the property was formerly owned by Thermal Reduction, which was also owned by Wilder. Thermal Reduction was once somewhat infamous for the indiscreet dumping of toxic incinerator ash that created environmental problems including contamination of soil and water with nickel, cadmium, lead and other things found in municipal solid waste. Yes, there are indications of that ash on and around the property, but only nine test cores were examined along one edge. It is possible the ash was scraped off earlier, but contamination may still remain. It is just as likely that a BFR jail is needed to cover up someone’s liability as to achieve any operational or fiscal benefits. Or perhaps there really is a plan afoot to move the county seat to Ferndale. That would please a lot of nearby landowners hungry for up-zones and land use conversions.
And what about the BFR jail? Why not a vertical structure downtown, next to the courthouse? The county has a rationale, but it’s pretty darn weak. Actually, it is inaccurate, specious and ridiculous in turns. The very documents cited by the county actually say a central jail near the courthouse is best. The U.S. DOJ writes: “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 argument against a vertical jail downtown asserts that “the entire structure would need to be shelled out at initial construction” and a building of 30 to 40 stories would be required. That’s not true. Towers are routinely built in phases. You can’t make this stuff up. Well, they can but… The truth of the matter is that they just want a BFR jail and so, “...consideration of an urban site which would require a vertical tower or towers was not performed.” They cite Spokane’s findings that a BFR jail would would cost $36 million less than a vertical tower but gloss over the finding that it would cost $1.3 million more in operating and transportation costs. Over a fifty year planning outlook, that reverses the fiscal conclusion to nearly $30 million in favor of a central jail. They conclude by reporting that Spokane elected to build a BFR jail. That’s not true, either. Spokane now appears to be consolidating their criminal justice operations, while trimming $66 million off their original plans.
The sheriff is quick to point out that even though the proposed site is further from Bellingham, it is closer for other jurisdictions. That’s not strictly true and avoids the fact that the preponderance of arrests originate in Bellingham and the inconvenience will be felt by all the attorneys, purveyors of bail bonds, families wanting to stay in touch with their incarcerated members, and the prisoners themselves upon release.
The jail proponents’ logic became so fuzzy that council member Rud Browne finally sponsored a resolution asking the county executive to detail several particulars needed to make rational comparisons in hopes of providing interested parties a basis for understanding the project. The resolution was quietly withdrawn and left without committee assignment.
Now comes a glossy, oversized, map-fold promo piece for the jail mailed from the county to voters. The piece was prepared by a jail design consultant to the county that stands to benefit nicely from the project - clearly a biased source. According to sources, it cost more than a dollar per piece to print. Design and postage are as yet unknown to the public. One council member asked the administration where in the budget this expenditure was hidden. County Executive Jack Louws stood ready with girded loins first thing the next morning, armed with a letter asserting the mailer was a “fair and factual presentation of the new jail project.” He cites Public Disclosure Commission guidance allowing “jurisdiction-wide fact sheets" for such projects. However, the guidance quoted clearly states, “Such a presentation must accurately portray the cost and other anticipated impacts of a ballot proposition.” That provision appears to have been studiously ignored.
If the flier was their October Surprise, voters should consider the facts and give Louws, Elfo, McEachran, and the jail tax a hearty November surprise.