Part Seven: 2013 and 2014 - Acceleration of the Illusion of the Need for Speed

Juliette Daniels continues her in-depth analysis of Law & Justice in Whatcom County

Juliette Daniels continues her in-depth analysis of Law & Justice in Whatcom County


How the County hand-picked a jail consultant to design a large, regional jail and new Sheriff’s Headquarters project ,
1) Custom fit to the
2) County’s pre-chosen Site, based on the
3) County’s specific criteria

The County started 2013 with the LaBounty Road Property in the running for a future jail site and a $243,470.00 Phase 1 contract with DLR Group, Inc. (DLR)—The County’s hand-picked “Jail Planner.” Phase I of DLR’s work was to “culminate in DLR’s draft of an “Environmental Assessment for one site of the County’s choosing.” [See Whatcom County Contract No. 201301018, p.10, para. v]. The County followed that initial contract with 4 amendments that escalated payments to DLR until the Council had nearly doubled DLR’s compensation—to $748,902.00. DLR’s work product included a September 26, 2013 “pre-design” report on the County’s pre-determined Jail complex.

On November 26, 2013 - 10 days after the proposal was introduced in executive session - the County approved the purchase of the LaBounty Road Property for $6 million. The process to build a particular jail on a particular property then gained the momentum and speed to preclude careful consideration of other viable and less expensive options to the jail plan being crafted by the Sheriff and County Executive.

Once the County purchased the LaBounty Road Property, it seemed tied to a “commitment” to build a jail on it. This commitment is the foundation upon which the Sheriff and County Executive shepherded a majority of the Council along an arguably undemocratic and at least hasty process to saddle Whatcom County with long-term debt secured by a tax increase. The prospect of a third, larger Jail and Sheriff’s Headquarters on LaBounty Road in Ferndale has never been compared to the alternatives.

In September 2014, the County followed up DLR’s 2013 $748,902.00 Contract (and amendments), with an $825,887.00 DLR Contract, by which DLR would provide a schematic design of the Jail and the Sheriff’s Headquarters on the LaBounty Road Property to support the County’s Ferndale Conditional Use Permit for the facility. [See Whatcom County Contract No 201409013]. County Executive Louws said that the new DLR services would be “based on the September 2013 Pre-Design Report and Needs Assessment prepared by DLR Group.” [A future article will address the adequacy of DLR’s alleged “Needs Assessment”]. The Executive added that:

The work of DLR Group and their subcontractors during this phase will directly lead to the final Architectural and Engineering work associated with the preparation of bidding and construction documents. This final Engineering phase will only be authorized following public approval of the new jail project during the 2015 primary or general election.

See September 2, 2014 Memo to County Council from County Executive Jack Louws (attached to the Contract).

The Executive’s caveat was an important one, since DLR estimated the total cost to prepare those bidding and construction documents would be $6,274,310. [See Whatcom County Contract No. 201409013, p. 27]. However, based on the 2013 pattern of amendments to the original 2013 DLR Contract—and if the past is any guide—then the actual amount of the DLR Contract (if Proposition 2015-1 had passed), might have doubled—costing taxpayers closer to $12.5 million.

2015: The Artificial Need for More Speed

Before the November 2015 election, the County Executive pressed the Council to put Proposition 2015-1 on the ballot without a Jail Facilities Use Agreement (JFUA) with Bellingham by offering the Council a limited set of options—all of which presumed the large-scale jail/sheriff’s headquarters on LaBounty Road. First, the Executive presented the Council a preferred “Option One,” which involved moving ahead with a vote to put the Proposition 2015-1 tax initiative on the general election ballot without Bellingham currently onboard a JFUA. The Executed characterized Bellingham’s buy-in to the JFUA as a detail that the he alone should be allowed to negotiate without the “interference” of councilmembers working with their counterparts on the City Council to help resolve differences. Finally, the Executive persuaded the Council (narrowly in a 4-3 vote) that it was NOW or NEVER—If the voters didn’t have the opportunity to enact the Jail Tax, then the jail (as envisioned by the Sheriff and County Executive) would be delayed—A presumably unacceptable outcome.

While Washington State and the nation worked to reduce incarceration and increase public safety, Whatcom County elected officials worked harder to move the County toward mass incarceration

On June 23, 2015, the County’s Special Committee of the Whole met before the regular County Council Meeting, and discussed the meeting’s agenda item for a “Resolution submitting a proposition to the qualified voters of Whatcom County authorizing a local sales and use tax of two-tenths of one percent for the purpose of providing funds for costs associated with financing, designing, acquiring, constructing, equipping, operating, maintaining, remodeling, repairing, re-equipping, and improvement of jail facilities and other public safety purposes.” (Proposition 2015-1).

The Community Coalition for Justice, a group working to prevent and reduce incarceration to help reduce the size and expense of the proposed new jail project, presented its recommendation to the Council during the Whatcom County Council Special Committee of the Whole. Opportunity Council Executive Director Dave Finet, requested a paradigm shift to prioritize diversion alternatives. He explained that diversion and alternatives to incarceration are less expensive than keeping people in jail, less disruptive to families, more humane to those with behavioral health issues, and lower recidivism. He said the jail was a de facto mental health facility, and urged the Council to develop and fund an urgent care center first, and then consider whether diversion might affect the jail size. He encouraged the Council to make Whatcom County a true leader in fair, equitable, and cost-effective justice for everyone in the community. He urged the Council to help families break the cycle of incarceration.

Amy Kahn said that the jail was a non-partisan issue, and requested that the Council study and consider incarceration alternatives before they ask the voters to fund a new jail. She urged an evidence-based approach, asking the Council to get input from regional and national leaders, and available data on the success of alternatives to incarceration in other jurisdictions.

County Executive Jack Louws then presented his argument for putting Proposition 2015-1 before the voters as soon as possible. Option One was to approve the ballot initiative even without Bellingham’s agreement to the proposed JFUA. Councilmember Weimer asked whether the administration had considered changing the interlocal agreement to include the issue of diversion programs, and asked whether the City had expressed concern over the size of the jail proposed. Louws stated that the City of Bellingham would not contest the size or location of the facility, and that the sticking point was simply cost allocation. Weimer asked if the County could build a smaller jail. Louws answered no, and explained that the County would quickly run out of room, citing DLR’s so-called “Needs Assessment.”

Councilmember Mann responded that diversion options would save money. He pointed out that the incarcerated lose their Medicaid coverage, and diversion for those who qualify to programs outside of jail would result in huge cost savings for medical care. He stated a fundamental belief that diversion would work to reduce the incarcerated population and save the County money. He also pointed out that holding people in jail pre-trial is the most expensive way to run the jail. He supported building a smaller jail, and having enough funds to support a triage crisis facility, fund the incarceration prevention task force, and fund new programs to support diversion.

With respect to Option Two, which would mean giving Bellingham more of the tax funds, Louws said the County and Bellingham were so far apart on that issue that he didn’t know where to start any negotiation. In addition, Kremen said Option Two would require renegotiation of the agreement with all the other cities.

Option Three was to get the interlocal agreement finalized before authorizing a ballot initiative to fund the jail. Louws opposed this option because there would be a delay on the jail of a year or more, and they were “in a hyper-inflated time for construction costs, which will continue to rise.” In other words, time was of the essence or costs would inevitably rise (an invalid “slippery slope” argument that justified the need for speed).

Louws strongly advocated Option One, which was to get the proposition on the ballot, tell the voters exactly what the County planned to build, and get Bellingham onboard a JFUA before the November vote. The negotiations with Bellingham under Option One would be undertaken solely by the County Executive, who essentially told the Council that it would derail the whole process if they got involved in talking directly with their counterparts on the City Council. Louws argued that he was in the best position to negotiate with Bellingham, because he had been in the trenches negotiating the JFUA with all the parties for the past 8 months—in other words, he was the authority. Louws also said that if Bellingham was not included in the JFUA, then the jail size would be reduced accordingly, from 521 beds to 400, at a cost savings of approximately $25 million.

At the regular County Council Meeting later on June 23, 2015, the resolution that led to Proposition 2015-1, requesting voter authorization of a .2 percent local sales tax to help build a new jail was put to a Council vote on Barbara Brenner’s motion. The council approved putting the Jail tax on the ballot (without a current JFUA with Bellingham) by a vote of 4 in favor (Brenner, Browne, Sidhu and Kremen) and 3 opposed (Mann, Weimer and Buchanan).

Next, the County hits a “speed bump” when voters reject Proposition 2015-1.

About Juliette Daniels

Posting Citizen Journalist • 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

Michael Lilliquist

Jun 02, 2017

Louws stated that the City of Bellingham would not contest the size or location of the facility, and that the sticking point was simply cost allocation.”

I have no doubt that this is an accurate paraphrase of what jack Louws said, but it is not an accurate account of the sentitments of the Bellingham City Council at the time—nor today.

Yes, the City of Bellingham  has pushed hardest on the financial aspect, but that is becasue it is the only aspect of the process for which the City was asked to participate.  We were asked, and are being asked, to sign a contractual agreement to share construction costs and operating costs.  We objected. That was the only decision before the City Council, and we said “no thanks, not fair.” That contractual agreement has now been re-written, and it is much better and more fair in terms of cost allocation.  But it is still tied to a jail project over which the City of Bellingham does not have a “vote.”

The City of Bellingham was never asked—and has no control over—many other aspects of the County’s jail planing efforts. This includes size, location, facilties, alternatives, etc.  But many of us have been quite vocal with our disappointment and disagreement on these other aspects. I thnk it is fair to say that most of us on the City Council, perhaps all of us, do not like the location.  The La Bounty location is a problem for our police officers, to say nothing of the hassle for anyone else who works with the court system or county government. Downtown Bellingham works now, and it could continue to work.

Certainly city officals such as myself have been critical of the size and cost.  Two years ago, we proposed to re-write the agreement to limit the jail to $80 million and 450 beds, but that proposal went no where with the County administration.  When I asked County Council members about the proposal, they had never heard about it. That was shocking, and it showed a total breakdown in communication. I have since taken to talking directly with County Council members. I am meeting with two of them earlky next week, in fact, to discuss this very issue.


Tim Paxton

Jun 03, 2017

Unfortunately the conclusion is that the County Council is easily panicked into a crisis mode by the clever jail consultants and Louws pressure.  Either that or they are getting a payoff.   There is no real crisis, study or need for a new jail.  A little bail reform could go a long way.

The other un-examined presumption here is that the vote count will not be hacked in favorr of the jail.   As long as computers/softare are in the vote count mix,the odds are that a suitable bribe is all it takes to make the vote a squeaker in favor of the jail. 


David Camp

Jun 05, 2017

@MIchael - please keep up the communication with County Council - they are part-timers and the Exec and Sheriff are full-time and control all the County resources so Council is at a disadvantage to an Exec pushing an agenda in bad faith. Yes bad faith - here they come with another kick at the can only this time they are trying to get voters to buy a pig in a poke. Just disgraceful behavior, a complete abdication of fiscal responsibility and abuse of the democratic process. 

@Tim Paxton - your allegations of bribery of elected officals (“or they are getting a payoff”) and of potential hacking of County election hardware facilitated by bribery are an insult to people who work hard for very little compensation, true public servants - our Councilors. And an insult to the County Auditor as well. I’m not sure what you are trying to accomplish with your evidence-free insults, but you are out of line. Way out of line. I think you should be banned for this crap absent a groveling apology. 


Michael Lilliquist

Jun 13, 2017

David, I’ve had several conversations with individual county council members recently to talk about the jail proposal.  The picture I get is of a range of ideas and opinions, not a consensus.  That said, as I read things, the jail tax will go forward to the November ballot by a close 4-3 vote.  That might change with tonight’s hearing.

If it doesn’t change, and the County Council goes ahead to the ballot, the City will be in a bind—unhappy with many of the details, size, location, and the emphasis, but unwilling to be cut out of the jail entirely.  That was the threat last time, you will recall:  the Louws’ “retribution plan” called for a smaller jail, and no room for Bellingham inmates.

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