The Whatcom County administration, working with the Sheriff’s department (which is responsible to run the county lock-up) has proposed to spend $121.5 million to build a new jail in the County. They propose to finance the debt by using 100% of the available Public Health and Safety taxing authority – a sales tax increase of 0.2%, which only requires a simple majority to pass, unlike a property tax increase to pay for a capital project, which must be approved by a super-majority of 60% of Whatcom citizens. This article is intended to provide financial background information for people to use to evaluate the proposal.
1) Jail Operating Cost History
The operating costs of the County jail are accounted for in a separate fund – this is a requirement of governmental accounting. There is one notable exception – interest costs on the debt incurred to build the jail are not included in the jail fund. All the figures below are sourced from Whatcom County Finance Dept. website: 1998-2013 are actual figures; 2014 and 2015 are budgeted figures.
Year Jail Operating Costs Percent Increase:
1999 $5,327,787 6.62%
2000 $5,729,679 7.54%
2001 $6,298,170 9.92%
2002 $6,889,604 9.39%
2003 $6,973,780 1.22%
2004 $7,426,716 6.49%
2005 $8,277,406 11.45%
2006 $9,857,598 19.09%
2007 $11,035,201 11.95%
2008 $11,277,454 2.20%
2009 $11,871,606 5.27%
2010 $11,915,034 0.37%
2011 $11,926,428 0.10%
2012 $11,684,834 -2.03%
2013 $12,298,860 3.22%
2014 $13,128,822 6.75% budget
2015 $13,637,274 3.87% budget
Compound Annual Increase in Jail Operating Costs, 1998 – 2015: 6.08%
More on this below but one note – jail operating costs have increased at over twice the rate of inflation over the past seventeen years.
2) Prospective Jail Operating Costs
These figures reflect the following assumptions: 1) 3% annual jail operating cost increase based on 2015 budget as base; 2) $97 million in debt to build a new jail bearing interest at 5% (this is according to the County’s “Jail Facility Use Agreement” presented to the City of Bellingham); and 3) borrowing beginning in 2017. This is how the numbers run out to 2027:
Year Jail Operatg Cost Pct Incr. Interest Cost Total Jail Expense
2016 $ 14,046,392 3.00%
2017 $ 14,467,784 3.00% 4,850,000 $ 19,317,784
2018 $ 14,901,818 3.00% 4,850,000 $ 19,751,818
2019 $ 15,348,872 3.00% 4,850,000 $ 20,198,872
2020 $ 15,809,338 3.00% 4,850,000 $ 20,659,338
2021 $ 16,283,618 3.00% 4,850,000 $ 21,133,618
2022 $ 16,772,127 3.00% 4,850,000 $ 21,622,127
2023 $ 17,275,291 3.00% 4,850,000 $ 22,125,291
2024 $ 17,793,549 3.00% 4,850,000 $ 22,643,549
2025 $ 18,327,356 3.00% 4,850,000 $ 23,177,356
2026 $ 18,877,177 3.00% 4,850,000 $ 23,727,177
2027 $ 19,443,492 3.00% 4,850,000 $ 24,293,492
These are admittedly estimates – and they may be low, as I used a jail expense inflation rate of less than half what it has been over the past seventeen years. Ballpark summation - the County will have managed to increase the costs of running the County Lockup from under $5 million per year in 1998 to over $24 million per year in 2027. Again, this is over twice the rate of inflation over this period. And they do not include the increased expense that will be loaded on all the people who have relatives and clients in jail – they will have to drive where they now can walk.
Where to begin? I think a few questions to those responsible for this proposal are in order:
1) What caused you to increase spending on the jail by more than twice the rate of inflation from 1998 to 2015, in an era of declining crime rates?
2) How is it that you justify the “need” for a new jail on “unsafe” conditions when you have been spending money for the past fifteen years as if you were doing remedial maintenance but in actuality doing what?
3) Where is the Needs Assessment required for a capital project of this magnitude?
4) Where are other alternatives evaluated – for example:
a. the cost of repairing and upgrading the existing jail?
b. The availability and costs of alternatives to incarceration for non-violent criminals?
5) Where is the cost-benefit analysis?
6) Why do you think it is a good idea to take 100% of the available taxing authority for Public Health and Safety to pay for this thing and leave zero for EMS, zero for Fire Protection Services, zero for addiction counseling, zero for public health at all, zero for water quality, zero for anything but locking people up?
These are the kinds of questions we need answers for before we open the checkbook. So far, the County administration is proceeding as if entitled (“We need a new jail! We need a new jail!) – this kind of stuff really brings out my inner Republican – how is this not an out-of-control tax-and-spend bureaucracy? How can any fiscal conservative look at this white elephant in the making and not be up in arms (figuratively speaking)?
The law enforcement community needs to get creative in more ways than just figuring out how to spend more tax dollars. How about figuring out how to reduce the cost of incarceration? How about consulting with someone other than a jail salesman – how have other jurisdictions reduced their incarceration costs? What are best least cost practices?
Kudos to the City of Bellingham’s Mayor Linville and Counselors for holding this thing up. It’s not, as the County administration seems to believe, a train rolling down the track but rather an airy dream supported by wishful thinking. We poor citizens hold the purse strings on this. Don’t let go!
This article is covered under Creative Commons Licence CC BY 3.0 – Share with attribution.
Prepared as a public service by David M. Camp, cpa WA lic#30879