The County plays hard-ball with Bellingham and hits a major “Speed Bump” when voters reject Proposition 2015-1.
In basic terms, the Jail Facilities Use Agreement (JFUA) is a partnership that describes how the county and all its cities will contribute financially to the project and what services (and tax revenue) each will receive for its contribution. The City of Bellingham negotiated with the County throughout 2015 on the terms of the JFUA, and sent a redline version to Whatcom County On April 2, 2015, but on April 10, the County Executive presented a final JFUA to all parties, essentially unchanged. Bellingham followed up on May 7, 2015 with a list of 22 concerns identified by the City. On June 15, 2015, the Bellingham City Council approved core principles that the city believed should guide the negotiations including the following:
1. Prevention and diversion programs need to be funded under the agreement and implemented with City representation.
2. Equitable contribution to the capital project and operation.
3. Operational funds and capital funds need to be separated.
4. The City must have continued access to the facility and programs.
5. Ensure any agreement would preserve the City’s ability to meet its public safety needs.
On June 22, 2015, the City presented the County with a proposal regarding the JFUA and the city’s core principle. The City of Bellingham—the county’s largest city and county seat—expected a response and further negotiation. Instead, the County Council voted on June 23, 2015 vote to put the jail tax initiative on the November 2 ballot—without Bellingham’s agreement to the JFUA.
The County administration then informed the city that Bellingham’s current JFUA expired in 7 months, and that Bellingham might be on its own to come up with a solution for Bellingham’s share of jail use. Two months later (on August 31, 2015), the County Executive asked the City to provide detailed objections and alternative proposals that might lead to an agreement on the JFUA before Proposition 2015-1 was put to the voters. The County Executive has now conceded that these negotiations were “too late” to resolve the JFUA before the November 3 election. [Comments made in the Jail Stakeholders Work Group – 2016].
The City Council responded to the County Executive’s August 31 proposal with a letter (and redlined JFUA) dated September 15, 2015, but the Executive waited until October 2, 2015, to both reject the city’s proposals, and any further negotiations on the JFUA before the November 3 sales tax ballot measure. The main sticking point appeared to be the County increase of the City’s obligation from 13.4 percent for bed usage to 21 percent (the city offered to increase its contribution to 15 percent which was above its current and projected use of the jail).
When the County Council deferred to the County Executive to undertake “negotiations” with the City on the JFUA, the Council and the Executive may have had two completely different definitions of “negotiations.” The County Executive “negotiated” with demands and ultimatums. The tenor of these “negotiations” was not conducive to success, and—in fact—the County would gain more control over tax funds without a JFUA with Bellingham. The County Executive might also have overestimated the likelihood that Proposition 2015-1 would pass without Bellingham onboard—his optimism possibly fueled by a glossy jail brochure/mailer sent out with county funds featuring the Sheriff, County Executive and County Prosecutor providing their “Community Report” on the proposal to voters just before the ballots and voter’s guides hit their mailboxes.
Specifically, without knowledge of the County Council, the County Executive spent $45,725.00 in taxpayer funds on the pre-election jail brochure: $18,000.00 to County consultant DLR to produce the mailer and $27,670.00 for printing and mailing the 11-by-17 inch mailer to households with at least one registered voter. There were 16 complaints filed with the state Public Disclosure Commission, which can fine those who fail to comply with election rules. On December 8, 2016, County Executive Louws was fined $1,000.00 by the Commission, with $500.00 suspended on the condition that there would be no similar violations in the next four years.
On November 3, 2015, the voters rejected Proposition 2015-1—but undeterred, the County again “put the pedal to the metal,” with the intent to fly over the speed bump put down by the voters, and get the Jail Train back on track.
2016: The Need for Warp Speed.—The Sheriff gets a provision in a Council resolution to put the Jail Tax proposition on the ballot again (no later than November 2017); and the County forms a Jail Stakeholders Workgroup to create a funding proposal for the jail and get Bellingham onboard a JFUA.
On February 9, 2016, Councilmembers Buchanan, Mann and Weimer proposed a Resolution “Adopting a Statement of Incarceration and Prevention, Criminal Justice and Jail Planning Principles for Whatcom County’s Criminal Justice and Behavioral Health Systems.” On February 23, 2016, The Resolution was held in Committee, and on March 8, 2016, a substitute resolution, amended by the Sheriff and others, was approved unanimously by the Council. The Resolution reflected the Council’s “commitment to public safety, justice, fiscal responsibility, harm reduction, healing, and prevention as public priorities,” and recognized that “[w]hile there is a national discussion on incarceration and behavioral health we see an opportunity to improve our criminal justice system and rebuild our jail.” The Resolution required consensus from “all of our partners, the public and related businesses” on the location of any new jail facility—including revisiting whether the jail should be in downtown Bellingham.
The Sheriff specifically requested the following revision, which was last on the list of stated principles, at No. 13:
We recognize the need to provide a safer, more secure and healthier environment for those who work, visit, and are incarcerated within the jail; therefore, we will work to have a funding proposal on the ballot with a goal of no later than November 2017. [See Whatcom County Resolution No. 2016-008].
Four months after voters rejected Proposition 2015-1, the Sheriff and County Council were moving quickly beyond that defeat by setting a November 2017 deadline for another jail tax ballot measure—or getting a “second bite at the apple.” To further that goal, On June, 14, 2016, the Council approved Resolution No. 2016-021, which established a Jail Stakeholder Workgroup to develop a funding proposal for a new jail and get a measure on the ballot “no later than November 2017.” This Resolution sought to get Whatcom County, Bellingham, and other stakeholders working “together to address the concerns of the voters and develop a mutually agreeable plan for funding, constructing, and operating a new jail facility.” [See Whatcom County Resolution No. 2016-021]. In addition, the Council resolved “that a Jail Workgroup will be established to provide a recommendation to the Council for the financial agreements required for development of a new jail, including the cost of the facility; the funding mechanism; and the allocation and funding of operating expenses between jurisdictions.”
On October 13, 2016, at the second meeting of the Workgroup, City Councilmember April Barker raised the issue of whether voter concerns related to the cost of the jail and the size and siting of the jail would be addressed in the workgroup. Chair Kelli Carroll emphasized that the group was laser-focused on just three tasks: (1) The financial agreements required for development of a new jail (i.e. the JFUA) including the cost of the facility; (2) the funding mechanism; and (3) the allocation and funding of operating expenses between jurisdictions. Mayor Kelli Linville stated that her view of the workgroup was that it was vested with the mandate to come up with an agreed plan and JFUA to recommend to the voters, and then solicit public input. Further, Mayor Linville and City Councilmember Gene Knutson both agreed that they would concede to the use of the .2 percent sales tax as a funding mechanism, rather than a property tax. City Councilmember April Barker said she needed more information to study the two funding mechanisms before she could commit to a position, and that she understood that some of her constituents considered the sales tax funding mechanism to be regressive.
In addition, as opponents of Proposition 2015-1 pointed out before the election, enactment of a .2 percent sales and use jail tax would mean that the County—and all the cities—would be legally “tapped out” and could not ask the voters to raise the sales tax again for other public safety uses. [See RCW 82.14.450 (1): “The rate of tax under this section may not exceed three-tenths of one percent of the selling price in the case of a sales tax]. Most important, if voters approve a .2 percent sales and use jail tax identical to Proposition 2015-1, then the County will have a blank check to build whatever facility it sees fit, with no checks and balances on the scale, location or cost of the facility.
The voters rejected Proposition 2015-1 for good reason. The voters should now request the County Council to shelve plans to put another tax proposition forward and consider instead a to the County Executive and Sheriff’s plan to put the County in debt for the next 30 years: The remodel of the existing jail facilities along the lines of the design2 LAST, inc. proposal commissioned in 2016 by the County. In conjunction with the new $125 million new jail complex, the County plans to implement of the design2 LAST plan as a “stop-gap” measure to keep the current jail viable until the new jail is built on LaBounty Road. [See Building Assessment Studies and Cost Estimates for Capital Improvements at the Jail (Public Safety Building) and Work Center dated October 11, 2016 – Whatcom County Contract 201607005 (Phase 1A)]. However, the design2 Last report and remodel of the jail is not on the table as a long-term solution to the main jail—even though repair is feasible and wouldn’t put the County in hock for more than 30 years—because the
Next, an analysis of renovation of the downtown county jail.