About Tip Johnson

Tip Johnson is a longtime citizen interest advocate with a record of public achievement projects for good government and the environment. A lifelong student of government, Tip served two terms on the Bellingham City Council and has worked on many community boards and committees. He travelled with the Federal Transit Administration and Department of Commerce on mass transit trade missions in SE Asia and Africa before settling down to focus on keeping public interests at the fore of local government and the course of growth and development.

By: Tip Johnson (178)

No Third Jail Tax

Who benefits?

Who benefits?


I will be voting NO on this third try to tax us for another jail. 

I do not believe it is designed to benefit the community at large. It will, however, likely benefit some.  

Here is a partial list:
MERSEY LLC (JANICKI) Real Property Investment
B.P.R.-RENTON LLC (GARTH SCHLEMLEIN) Real Property Investment
COUGAR MOUNTAIN REAL ESTATE CO (RSC CORPORATION (Registered Agent)) Real Estate Holding Company
BARRETT VENTURES LLC (BD SERVICES CORPORATION (Other Services)) Real Property Investment
AARON 1 LLC (LARRY CAMPBELL) Real Property Investment
ELDRED PROPERTIES LLC (WEYLIN ELRED) Real Property Farm and Investment
MOLLY K WEDEN (No record)
JACK T & GREG T MOWAT TR (No record)
JAMES 001 LLC (LARRY CAMPBELL) Real Property Investment

These are vacant or mostly vacant properties in that long arm of the Ferndale city limits that stretches south in an attempt to shake hands with the future long arm of the law. These properties are poised to vacuum attorneys, bond agencies, counselors, and jail vendors out of Bellingham, away from the courthouse and into Ferndale. I expect the Whatcom County courthouse would eventually follow.

One of these, a 20 acre parcel, has a market value of $509,250 but books a productivity loss of $463,010, leaving a taxable value of $46,240, despite being fully served with water, sewer and storm drainage.

You can dig around for more info on the Ferndale Map Viewer, and the Whatcom County Tax Parcel Viewer.

A new jail at the proposed location will benefit these landowners and the City of Ferndale, but will the inmates or their families find benefit in the remote location? Will the County’s anticipated reliance on technology for court appearances benefit either the courts, defendants, or justice? How many added staff will be required for security and transport to and from the courthouse? It certainly will not benefit the civic center of our county seat.

Completed in 1984, the current jail was built to last 50 years, until 2034. In 39 years, it has been run down into disrepair through neglect. A popular narrative emerged that the “jail is crumbling.” I’m not convinced. Seismic indicators placed after the Nisqually earthquake haven’t budged. I personally read a report from a structural engineer that said the building is sound, built on bedrock with pre-stressed concrete panels, and designed to hold two additional stories. The report allowed that there were problems, with ventilation and stairs, but attributed some problems to oversized equipment (e.g. generator, kitchen) that were intended to serve the never attempted next phase of construction. This report has disappeared from the county archives.

The County published their rationale for a big, flat, rural jail. Reviewing the jail planning documents cited in the county rationale was instructive. The U.S. DOJ writes:  “Historically, most jails were built next to the courthouse to allow the easy transfer of inmates to and from court. That proximity is still desirable today… If land is available adjacent to the downtown jail, the jurisdiction probably will choose to build a multistory structure to accommodate the desired capacity.”  The Jail Design Guide states:  “Maintaining efficient and secure movement of inmates between the jail and the courts may be the single most critical linkage. A direct physical connection is most desirable…” It further cautions that, “The impact of the facility location on staffing results primarily from the need to transport inmates between jail and court. A significant amount of staff time can be consumed by this task, possibly to the point of requiring more personnel.”  The rationale states: “The initial conclusion …was that a tower of approximately 40 stories would need to be constructed just to accommodate the jail facility. Additional construction would need to take place for a parking structure and the Sheriff’s Office headquarters.”

As with many of the jail proponents’ claims, that’s hard to believe.

There are so many reasons to say NO to this proposal: The practice of keeping the jail stuffed through continuances and bail requirements. The failure of the County to implement the VERA recommendations. The County’s steadfast insistence that restorative services should be in the jail complex. The forestalling of funding for restorative services until the jail has been built. The failure to evaluate the existing jail or downtown locations. The lack of any specific plan other than a proposed size almost double what was already rejected. A new “plan” 121 pages long. The County Treasurer’s advice that we cannot spend more than $100 million without destabilizing our capital budget, that additional staff and maintenance costs not covered by the tax will eat up our capacity to provide other services to the community.

Read the 121 page Implementation Plan and see if it makes sense to you, recognizing that all the restorative service is coming after the jail - if there is any money left.  

In essence nothing has changed but the size. Consequently we can turn to the past for further critique. Much has been written on the subject and here are just a few, mostly from the incomparable Juliette Daniels:

Introduction to the “Illusion of Inclusion”
Part One:  The Illusion of Inclusion
Part Two: The Illusion of Inclusion
Part Three: The Illusion of Inclusion
Part Four: The Illusion of Inclusion
Part Five: The Illusion of Inclusion
Part Six: Introducing the “Need for Speed” in the Illusion of Inclusion
Part Seven: 2013 and 2014 - Acceleration of the Illusion of the Need for Speed
Part Eight: The Illusion of Inclusion and the Need for Speed
Vote NO on the New Jail Tax
Making a Jail: Bamboozle!
That Louwsy Jail Deal
Or Google <“whatcom County Jail" site:nwcitizen.com>.  There's lots more.

In A Brief History of the Whatcom County Jail, the following is recounted:  “In 1999, a 0.1% sales tax increase had been approved by the County Council for criminal legal purposes. A second 0.1% voter-approved sales tax increase followed in 2004. The latter funding was directed to construction of a new main jail and a minimum-security Work Center… A new jail, however, was not built.”

“A 0.2% sales tax increase measure was placed on the November 2015 ballot to fund
the new 521-bed jail.”  “…voters rejected the sales tax ballot measure in November 2015 by a 51-49 margin.”

“Council approved (2017) a second ballot measure for a 0.2% sales tax increase to fund the construction, operation, and maintenance of a new jail…” 
“Whatcom County voters again rejected the ballot measure to fund a new jail by an even wider margin of 59-41”

Voters have had their smell checkers out and they are working fine. This third jail tax is a blank check on our County budget. The jail should be next to the courthouse. Fix the existing jail. Add onto it, or build anew on one of the large parcels adjoining the courthouse. Build tiny jails in the smaller cities to mitigate existing jail loading. Folks are supposed to get out of jail if they aren’t going to prison. Work on that. Build some affordable housing on the LaBounty Road site and provide some services.

Just don’t build a big, flat, rural jail. 

Vote NO on Proposition 2023-04.

About Tip Johnson

Citizen Journalist and Editor • Member since Jan 11, 2008

Tip Johnson is a longtime citizen interest advocate with a record of public achievement projects for good government and the environment. A lifelong student of government, Tip served two terms [...]

Bill McCallum

Nov 01, 2023

 The Brief History of the Whatcom County Jail at the end of the article did not mention the 1997 vote.

 Nov. 4, 1997: The County Council places a levy on the general election ballot to collect a one-tenth of one percent sales tax (10 cents for every $100) to be used for juvenile detention facilities and jails. The levy fails, receiving 41.64 percent of the vote. The council also places an advisory vote on the ballot. A sales tax would be used exclusively for criminal justice purposes. It also fails, receiving 41.77 percent of the vote.

 How much did the jail tax win by in 1999?


Tip Johnson

Nov 02, 2023

Good question, Bill.  I looked at the Nov ‘99 summary here, but did not find a record.


Thomas R. Scott

Nov 13, 2023

The [regressive] Sales Tax keeps going up and up in Whatcom and Bellingham.  Some of that for jail, but is never spent on the/a jail, plus the rightly failed attempts to keep taxing more without completing previous projects and no tax having been rescinded once it has passed a reasonable time to raise the intended amounts.  Attempts by the City to abscond with Greenways funds for unrelated uses and a goodly number of voters have lost trust with local (Whatcom/Bellingham) administrations to use funds as designed and approved has wained considerably.  Any trust, at this point, will need to be earned, somehow.

It all adds up as an indication of bureaucratic budget averice and abject incompetence.  If the previous asks were insufficient, that points to incompetence.  If it was enough but nothing happened, incompetence.  And where is all that money, what fund?  Did it quietly slide into the Geneeral Fund then off to pet projects and administrative salaries?

That is why it is hard to even take them seriously anymore.  That is why so many vote against them.  I’m guessing many have stopped bothering to read the particulars as they have all or virtually all proved  meaningless in the past.

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