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

The Jail - Pentagon Hammers and Brick Walls

By On

There is so much more voters should know about the County’s continuing quest for a new jail. But ballots are out and life is too short to chase through materials made too difficult to access. Someone really should investigate, but the resources of this poor writer are already overextended, so here is a brief synopsis of the most recent forays into the land of pentagon hammers and brick walls.

Some readers will have already read my opinion of the County’s “Louwsy Jail Deal” in which …” 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?”

That kind of overpriced sale certainly qualifies for consideration as a ‘pentagon hammer’. I thought it would be ripe for further investigation, but the brick walls were already up - the parcel numbers had changed - …”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.

Blocked from digging up all the land swapping history, I thought it would be interesting to check out who was featured in the utility extensions that resulted in a bizarre back door sewer service to the property. I couldn’t find anything on Ferndale’s website so I tried their Communications Director. He recommended I make a public disclosure request, which I did. This led to a confusing double bind because I need but don’t have date ranges or project names to access applications, approvals, minutes and the like. Knowing I would otherwise get buried in a mountain of irrelevant records, I was referred to their public works department and withdrew my request. Brick wall.

Public works referred me to their online GIS system. After trying my best and running aground online, I got bounced around and was finally informed that those layers are actually not on the public GIS, but I could make an appointment to come in and look at the department’s version. It’s a hassle getting up there with a bike on the bus, so I eventually declined to scale that brick wall. However, I did find another nugget on this particular pentagon hammer.

Below is a screenshot of the proposed jail parcel (I added the dashed orange boundary) on the Ferndale GIS showing layers for FEMA floodways and floodplains, known and suspected wetlands, and steep slopes. I didn’t find a layer for protected archeological sites or toxic ash dumps, also known to exist on site. It looks like at least three quarters of the site is impaired. (Click image for larger edition) Why was it so expensive? Was the Council aware of these encumbrances?

Floodways, Floodplains and Wetlands
Floodways, Floodplains and Wetlands

There is enough shenanigan and hanky-panky looking nonsense in this deal to set off my smell-check alarms and probably enough to warrant an official investigation. One sitting judge even admitted privately that it was always part of the plan to make moving the county seat to Ferndale inevitable. It’s a whole different scale of brick wall when the ones who would normally investigate are the ones running the game.

Regular readers will also know my opinion about the Big Fibs underlying our tax-happy, jail-happy council and administration. I think it is obvious that the notion of a large, regional detention center came first and the public process was designed to legitimize the idea. Folks recall Sheriff Elfo, as early as 2008, explaining to a gathering of Democrats how contracts with DHS, ICE and INS would benefit the County. This is consistent with one CPA’s analysis concluding the proposed jail would otherwise bankrupt the County.

Once that big-rural-jail train left the station, it faced some heavy uphill grades. The cost of repairing and improving the existing jail is ostensibly less than a third of the cost of building the new jail. Except repairs could occur out of current accounts while new jail construction would likely require a bond issue with service fees and interest charges, making the one third estimate extremely conservative. To overcome this disparity a campaign of appearance was waged, purposely over-incarcerating citizens to create overcrowded jail conditions and neglecting maintenance to create inhumane jail conditions. And the stories emerged - the jail is crumbling, it’s not safe for deputies or inmates, dogs are treated better at the pound, the doors pop open, the generator takes too long to restore power, potential for catastrophic loss of life, etc.

It’s all BS. The jail is fine. It is founded on bedrock, decked with pre-stressed panels and designed to support two more stories. Even the building generator and hydraulic reservoir for the elevator were sized for the expansion. One might wonder why this obvious option has had so little consideration. Well, it’s just not part of their plan.

Now, of course, the County has finally resigned itself to start implementing recommendations Sheriff candidate Joy Gilfilen and the Restorative Justice folks have been pushing for over a decade. The new jail tax failed twice at the polls, so a justice reboot is in progress. This is going to finally include some repairs. And here is where we take our next wild swing and find another pentagon hammer behind another brick wall.

The County recently awarded a $4.3mm “Jail Improvements” contract to Dawson Construction for “Detention Doors & Hardware”. The contract involves 161 doors and the scope of work describes both replacement and repair but doesn’t distinguish between them. The contract refers to bid documents 19-11. These also fail to detail how many doors will be replaced and how many repaired. What got my attention was the $26k+ cost per door.

I asked the Facilities department if they could tell me how many new vs. repaired doors and I got this:

“I cannot answer that question in an email as it would be too complicated to explain and understand without having a set of plans. You can go thru Public Records request http://www.whatcomcounty.us/1027/Public-Records-Disclosure-Information to obtain a set of Plans to review.”, and,

“Each Door is different not all doors have the same repairs or replacement requirements.”

They can’t say how many doors will be replaced or repaired on a contract they issued? I count that as a brick wall. Now let’s look for the pentagon hammer.

I wanted to know how much a door costs so I reached out to Grant Keene of Keene Jail Equipment, “Serving North America’s Prison and Detention Needs for Over 69 Years”. I described the doors as observed when I toured the jail. He said they can provide these for about $12.5k, installed, one off. In quantity, he said, the unit cost could be as low as $9.5k, installed.

So if ALL the doors were being replaced and we paid the one-off price it would be about a $2mm expense. If we got the volume discount, it comes to just over $1.5mm. So what’s going on with the other $2-3mm of the $4.3mm contract? Where is the budget oversight to protect taxpayers?

Keene had more to say. He wondered why the doors were being replaced when the jail was built so recently. They are designed to last. I explained that detainees had been able to jiggle-poke the doors to get the latches open. I had already talked to a twenty year jail maintenance worker whose response to this jail story was quick. “That’s a maintenance and training issue”. Keene allowed as how it may be possible for the safety latches to become poorly enough adjusted that they can be forced, but in almost every case, proper adjustment would solve the problem and he agreed it sounded like personnel should be taking some training seminars.

I went on to relay Sheriff Elfo’s personal story about touring folks through the jail when a door just suddenly popped open without detainee involvement or a signal from control. “Wait a minute, that’s different”, Keene said, “That’s a software issue!” He said he has seen that when there is a glitch between the primary and secondary boards that sends a signal in error to the PLC for the door. “You’ve got to fix that first. Replacing the doors won’t help.”

Forgive me if this all smacks of a program to punish taxpayers for refusing to punish themselves with unneeded tax measures. Can they over-inflate costs enough to make a new jail look good? One remarkable feature of the County’s continued insistence that the jail is falling apart is the fact that their consultant, design2LAST, sent a team to inspect the jail that included a structural engineer. But their report does not include anything on structural defects. That section is simply absent from the report. Another, smaller brick wall. But the consultant is apparently enjoying it’s own pentagon hammer at county taxpayers’ expense.

Instead, I tried to find the “National Institute of Corrections Technical Assistance Project #11J1059 Whatcom County Jail and Justice System Assessment - Warren F. Cook-Mark Goldman, Bellingham, Washington; August 29-31, 2011”, often referenced as a source for safety concerns. The Whatcom County Faciltiies Project and Operations Manager replied, “I am not aware of this document.” It doesn’t appear in any variety of google searches, a Whatcom County document search or a search at the NIC. Piles and piles of bricks.

Just one more example: Sheriff Elfo’s is concerned that the delay in the delivery of auxillary power could create security issues. All the lock systems are designed to fail safe. The generator start delay can be adjusted with a timer on the power relay. Would you adjust the timer, buy a new generator, or build a new jail?

Voters will have to decide who to elect for a Sheriff to guide this continuing jail initiative. I support Joy Gilfilen because of her Restorative Justice research, but whoever you choose, just remember: A million here and a million there, pretty soon you are talking real money. Who is in charge of that could be the difference that makes a big difference to Whatcom County taxpayers.

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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 [...]