Is there a good alternative for a decent jail if we vote down the county sales tax proposition? There are several serious issues with the current proposition, any one of which is a good reason to vote no. But we need a reasonable alternative once we reject this original proposal. Below is a viable solution - a better solution - that will not risk bankrupting us over the next 10 years.
The county powers that be, led by Sheriff Elfo and county executive, Jack Louws, are almost hysterically predicting disaster and chaos should we dare vote down their proposal. Their suggestion is that we max out our state permitted sales tax levy for an enormous jail many miles from its current central location near the courthouse, attorneys, transportation and families. Other articles will be published shortly that will explain the financial shenanigans and excessive expenses of their proposal.
Before presenting the solution, a word about the current jail - as there is general astonishment that it could be in such poor shape only 30 years after being built. As someone who was very active in local politics when our current jail was built, I know it is a mess. The county administrator for construction of that jail was Paul Rushing, and anyone who was around at the time and knew him knows most of his projects were built in a shoddy manner. There were continual rumors about his ethics, but he remained in office until he retired. Another building he supervised construction of is the courthouse addition - which we now know needs to be totally re-clad within the next couple years - at a cost of millions. The brickwork leaks and water is fatally damaging the building. The jail he supervised is a disaster that can no longer be repaired. It needs to be demolished.
And the present jail mess is a glaring reason that we should not trust our county government: this record is a repeating disaster.
Here is a common sense and workable jail plan once we defeat this jail sales tax proposition.
1. We construct a multi-story jail right next to the courthouse, in the parking lot on the north side, across Lottie Street. This would include a sky bridge for moving prisoners to and from the courts - an efficient and inexpensive process that will occur multiple times every day. The land is already owned by the county and city - and the lot is fully serviced by needed utilities - a significant cost saving feature - as over $20 million are earmarked for making the LaBounty road property ready for the jail. It is surrounded by civic buildings and would not intrude on residential or commercial activities. It strengthens our civic core by having all court-related services in a convenient, central location.
2. Financing this building should be done through property taxes, not a sales tax. Jails and courts serve the interests of property owners much more than renters and low-income individuals. A sales tax is regressive and unfairly burdens lower wage earners by taking a larger percentage of their income. Avoiding increased property taxes may sound appealing but we must be willing to pay for what we need - not push the costs of our society onto those who struggle to meet basic necessities. Use a sales tax increase strictly for alternative treatments to the jail.
3. Sell the LaBounty Road property. We bought it for something over $5 million, so we should get $5 million in resale, right? No. As Tip Johnson’s recent investigation and article has shown, there was a convoluted series of land transactions, increasing the property's value at each turn, before it was purchased by the county. Acknowledging the adage, we should not "throw good money after bad" by trying to make what is fundamentally a wetland into a tract that is viable for development. Sell it and funnel the proceeds into the new city center jail.
4. The parking lot next to the courthouse currently holds about 75 vehicles. The new jail could include two floors of underground parking that would hold 200 vehicles and provide an inside area for prisoner transfers to and from vehicles. It would also provide jury parking as well as space for those doing business at the courthouse.
Think of it: a modest sized jail surrounded by our courthouse, city hall, police station and Whatcom Creek - as well as the Health Department and post office. Built on a fully serviced lot that we own now. For additional space, the one block of Lottie Street between the courthouse and the new jail could be vacated with no adverse impact on traffic. We would save millions over future years by not having to transfer prisoners, via vans, the seven mile drive to the courthouse. Even once there, prisoners will need to be securely transferred into the courthouse, and then the process is reversed after the court appearance. Not a green solution, that. The number of sheriff deputy hours is staggering, to say nothing of the two secure transfer areas and much administrative time - millions of dollars over the next 10 - 20 years.
Let's not pass to the next generation a jail that is miles from the courthouse in an isolated location prime for scandal, prisoner abuse, corruption, and a waste of taxes. Let's not repeat the mistakes of our past in a new and innovative way. Let’s bring some common sense to this issue. First, vote “NO” on the jail sales tax proposition. Then, let's ask our County Council to plan a reasonable jail right next to the courthouse. It is a solid, viable, long term solution.