It is appropriate for the city to consider what is needed in a jail agreement, what is needed in a jail and what is needed in jail alternatives. The county should do more of this, too. A lot more.
However, I question the propriety of either council continuing to engage with the current jail proposal. Refusing to submit to the false urgency of the manufactured jail crisis could foster a more comprehensive approach to the future of our regional justice services.
I would draw your attention to a Whatcom Watch article in which Riley Sweeney outlines the cloak of secrecy under which this proposal emerged:
Besides the opaque procedure for the property acquisition, the lack of a credible needs assessment or public participation process should be ringing alarm bells. The proposal has bounced around from 800-some beds to 600-some, 500-some and now 400-some. The right figure is very important and requires competent planning. This has been sorely lacking.
It is very important because Medicaid benefits terminate immediately upon incarceration. Medical is already about 40% of jail operations and one of the fastest growing components. If half the folks landing in jail could be better managed in diversionary programs that preserve their benefits, we suddenly save 20% of operations off the top and provide citizens better outcomes at much lower costs than those incurred under incarceration.
Policy makers should also consider why the jail is crumbling. Did supervision fail to assure that specifications were achieved in the construction? Shouldn't we find out why before embarking upon the construction of another large public facility? Why is the jail still such a mess, with leaking sewage and unsafe wiring? We already passed one sales tax increase to address the problems. Officials appear to have chosen to let the jail deteriorate. Call a plumber.
An analysis of 14 land assessments on eight parcels surrounding the jail property produced an average value of $30,212 per acre. The jail property itself is assessed at $44,329 per acre. Why did the County pay $149,468 per acre?
I looked up the Jepson/Janicki jail property proposal submission and found the parcel number but it wouldn't search in the county’s property database. So I did a brute force property owner search for Whatcom County and looked for LaBounty, finding a new parcel number. However, the new parcel number shows only the most recent sale to the county and the current assessment - prior sales history disappeared with the old parcel number.
I went to the Assessor’s office and tried to get a bit further but ran aground, except that a component parcel appears to have belonged to Charles Wilder, registered at an Arizona address that when searched in Google maps displays an elementary school in New River, AZ. I wrote the Assessor on September 8th to ask for the histories of the old parcel numbers, but as yet have not had a reply.
According to Sweeney’s article, “Throughout this process, now County Executive Louws pushed for a quick selection of the jail property…” What was the hurry? Ironically, Louws himself helped establish the unprecedented comparable property value that cost taxpayers $4,177,176 over the jail site's $1,761,206 valuation.
In 2000, Louws bought six acres catty-corner from the jail site for $660,000. He sold it to Homeland Security in 2010 for $4,850,000 with two buildings currently valued at $2,538,240. Because of that sale, the land is uniquely assessed, well over any nearby property, at $240,413 per acre.
Even if the land doubled in value over the ten years Louws had it, it appears the Feds conveniently handed him a tidy million dollar premium just as he prepared to run for county executive, a position from which he engineered the somewhat sketchy jail property acquisition - next to Homeland Security, a Federal Civil Defense Highway, the railroad, and the airport with the joint Emergency Operations Center.
That's starting to sound uncomfortably like the makings of a FEMA camp. Folks in jail require frequent connection to the courts. Should we also anticipate the relocation of the county seat to this Ferndale location when sustaining the also crumbling courthouse becomes unmanageable? If we are posturing for a regional justice center, shouldn't it be done in the open with the involvement of policy makers and the public? Piecemeal approaches always benefit the schemers.
The current jail proposal intends to use 100% of funding available for public safety, leaving nothing for emergency services, fire protection or ancillary services. Law and justice is the largest and fastest growing component of the county budget and is poised to explode under the current proposal. It is likely to devour the entire budget, with potential to interfere with the delivery of other goods and services taxpayers require.
Finally, it is worth remembering that Louws, quoted in the Cascadia Weekly, weakly explained that he simply “lost track” of pursuing jail alternatives, even though he acknowledged it was one of his “assignments.”
That's just not good enough. It is past time for a do-over on the jail proposal. A different jail proposal might target banked property tax value and preserve the dedicated sales tax option for application to a broader range of services.
The councils should tell Louws and Elfo, “No, thank you,” and get to work on something designed to help our neighbors, friends and family members stay in jobs or school and out of jail. That's the way to save costs. Taxpayers should thank the folks at the Restorative Community Coalition, and legislators should take to heart the ideas in their Report to Taxpayers.
“Stop punishing taxpayers and start rebuilding community.”