Alternative Jail Proposal for City Center

There is a good alternative for a decent jail - but we first must vote down the jail sales tax proposal in November.

There is a good alternative for a decent jail - but we first must vote down the jail sales tax proposal in November.

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.

About John Servais

Citizen Journalist and Editor • Fairhaven, Washington USA • Member since Feb 26, 2008

John started Northwest Citizen in 1995 to inform fellow citizens of serious local political issues that the Bellingham Herald was ignoring. With the help of donors from the beginning, he has [...]

Comments by Readers

Barbara Perry

Sep 22, 2015

Thank you John.  I compliment your reasonable solution. I too remember when the current jail was built.  I want to know why it is in disrepair.  Where did the sales tax dinero go?  Why was Elfo designing the jail in the middle of the county anyway?  He was speaking double speak to say it would be cheaper.  I rather like Elfo but he is not an architect.  Architects need degrees.  And this is not a prison. Isn’t it a jail for short term offenses? And then another sales tax? Only an income tax is reasonable.  I am sick of the poor being taxed and not the wealthy.


Alex McLean

Sep 23, 2015

200 underground parking spaces, at about $40,000 apiece, adds up.

Still, I love this idea of “keeping it local”—a mantra that has served Bellingham well over the years. Why are we exporting our prisoners to Fernholler, so damnably far from the courthouse? With the massive administrative and Sheriff’s annexes clamped onto the current design you can practically smell the impulse to simply shuffle the County Council and the entire civic seat into the hinterlands. Everything will need to orbit around Lousy Louwville, 20 miles away, to a cluster of big budget-busting bunkers carved out of taxpayer wallets.


The spendy parking spots still pale compared to the estimated $80,000 I keep hearing referenced for the jail’s 10x12 cells.

Build the expensive turd here.
Use the scarfed out dirt from the parking lot hole, and the demolished ruins of the old jail, to backfill the waterfront.

Better yet, since the courthouse itself is rotting, why not just scoot all this new civic infrastructure onto the waterfront? While I’m waxing insane, let’s go ahead and consider the enfeebled state of our library as well—a dream of improving it could easily vaporize from the scouring force of tax fatigue if we commit to an expensive Ferndale jail, no matter how much we might want and deserve a new one.

Would a waterfront library really be such a bummer?


Marian Beddill

Sep 23, 2015

I see a lot of plusses for siting the new jail in the spot that this post suggests, across Lottie Street from the current jail and courts.

In the past, I have also looked at land which is the parking area on the opposite end of the present jail, to the south of the city-block which holds the Court House and jail - between Prospect and Grand Streets and across Central Ave. Both of these areas are relatively-low-impact utilization.  As whichever is considered for the jail, the other one might be first upgraded to multi-level parking, to serve the parking-space needs that will be bumped down to zero during construction on the spot where the new building is being built.

I keep being bothered by the “principal” factor that Elfo keeps citing for the rural site - a single-story jail, so that the operation and security staff can have all of the corridors in view from the core spot. I grant that such a feature may have some advantages, but I also cite that modern technology allows cameras and other technologies to provide that data to a security management office.

Another big negative of the rural site, as has been well discussed, is cost and staff time for transportation of inmates to and from the courts. A jail building which is attached—Gee, I don’t even have to finish the sentence.

If the jail-plan gets moved into the city, as we citizens are considering, I have to be confident that there will be some reasonable uses for those rural parcels.  Either for a different county activity, or simply being sold - even if the income is not enough to cover what the County paid for it.



Walter Haugen

Sep 23, 2015

Nah, makes too much sense. As a side note, didn’t Steve Harris suggest something like this when he ran against Bill Elfo for Sheriff?

I would also add that voting for Joy Gilfilen for County Executive would go a long way towards getting alternative proposals like this one on the table.


Hue Beattie

Sep 24, 2015

Vacating the block of Central Ave. south of the jail,as shown in the second photo, would be the place to build the new jail in my opinion. There is plenty of square footage using Central and the parking lot to the south.

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