County Ballot Measure: Jail Facilities Sales & Use Tax

Whatcom County Measure
Proposition No. 2015-1
Jail Facilities Sales and Use Tax

Official Ballot Title

The Whatcom County Council passed Resolution 2015-024 concerning a proposition authorizing a sales and use tax for jail facilities. This proposition would impose a sales and use tax of two tenths of one percent (20 cents for every $100) for constructing and operating jail facilities for inmates charged or convicted of misdemeanor and felony acts, and for other public safety purposes, as authorized by RCW 82.14.450. Half of this tax (10 cents for every $100) would expire upon repayment of bonds issued to finance the facilities, no later than 30 years after issuance.

Statement For:
For the past 14 years I have volunteered to serve the educational and spiritual needs of offenders housed in the deteriorating and unsafe County Jail. Four years ago, I served on the County Council created “Jail Planning Task Force” and joined in the unanimous recommendation to replace the jail as quickly as possible. This recommendation echoed those of previous studies and others from the U.S. Department of Justice engineers; jail planners; fire officials; and multiple prior citizen committees tasked with analyzing the jail.

What is a jail anyway? A few years ago I came to the conclusion that it is “an adult time out.” Just as we, as parents, put our children in “time out” to teach them the consequences of their actions, law enforcement officers bring people who violate society’s standards (laws) to the jail, and a judge or court commissioner determines the duration of the “time out.” Many people who are arrested are released within 24 hours on a promise to appear in court. Those who have shown a past unwillingness to abide by this promise or are so violent that we need protection from them are kept in jail until their case is adjudicated.
Just like when I was a kid, misbehavior has consequences. While these folks are in the jail they should be treated humanely, with dignity and compassion. Our jail staff does that, but the facility often negates their efforts.

The volume of offenders with severe and dangerous forms of mental illness dramatically increased in recent years. While the Sheriff was able to increase the quality and availability of mental health and substance abuse services within the jail, the potential of these programs is greatly hampered by the lack of space for effective evaluation, treatment and specialized housing. Services are often performed through a food hatch in a steel door that hinders effective communications, privacy and success. If Proposition 2015-1 is rejected, these conditions will continue for years.

Volunteers are ready, willing and able to offer basic educational and life skills classes to reduce the likelihood inmates will re-offend after release. For example, our Sheriff is concerned about the number of people in the jail who are unable to read. Over the years, there have been citizens and groups who offered to teach basic literacy classes. No room exists to safely conduct these programs. Other programs to benefit the inmates are available, but again, there is not adequate space.

The jail is literally crumbling and the U. S. Department of Justice’s National Institute of Corrections warned of the “catastrophic loss of life” in the event of a significant seismic event. Fire suppression and systems that control door access constantly fail and retrofitted upgrades have proved unreliable. The Bellingham Fire Marshal emphasized that the building could not be fully evacuated in the event of a fire.

It is wrong and immoral to continue housing people in a jail facility that is unsafe, compounds existing behavioral health problems and, due to its size and design, cannot offer adequate programming. The jail should be replaced with a facility designed to modern standards rather than the 1960’s standards we have today. It should be bright, clean, well lit, especially with daylight, and safe for all who work and are incarcerated in the building. It should have ample space for the medical and mental health staff to do their needed work. It should have a kitchen and laundry facility that is big enough to be safe and sanitary and also to be expanded if needed for growth.

Please vote to APPROVE Proposition 2015-1. Future generations will thank you.

Statement prepared by: Ray Baribeau

Statement Against:
I am opposed to the .2 sales tax increase to fund jail construction and operation.
Using sales tax to fund this project is a bad idea: Sales tax revenue can be wildly volatile as we have seen during the economic meltdown of 2008 and more recently when the Canadian dollar plummeted, leaving the City of Bellingham to take a huge hit.

Planning to use this tax revenue to fund bond payments as well as operations is a further bad idea. Sales taxes are regressive and will hurt people that can least afford it. A better funding mechanism would be a real estate excise tax or an increase in property taxes. County Council members in the past have taken great pride in announcing that they have banked tax increase capacity. Now, rather than step up and raise the taxes they have authority to raise, they ask the voters to increase the sales tax. The County Council and Executive should do their jobs and develop a stable and predictable funding source.
Given that they have the ability to raise taxes to fund this project, do you wonder why they are putting it up for a vote?

Like many others, I have difficulty separating the sales tax proposal from the project and feel the project planning has been deeply flawed. The Restorative Justice community consistently has been ignored. It is well documented that substance abuse and mental health treatment are far cheaper than incarceration and will net us a healthier community. Please look at the excellent work the Restorative Community Coalition. []

There are also concerns with the site the County purchased. They paid too much! Wetlands and geotechnical issues will make it a very expensive site to develop.
It is worth noting that this issue is framed as a new jail when what is actually being planned is a regional criminal justice facility. This will include new sheriff’s offices, courtrooms and triage facilities. That means family members of the incarcerated will be traveling to Ferndale, as will prosecutors, public defenders and court personnel. These financial, social and environmental costs will last as long as the jail. At this point, throwing good money after bad is poor planning. We need to take the hit, sell this site and start over.

We, the citizens of Whatcom County, voted in 2004 to fund a new jail. At that time a .01 percent sales tax was estimated to raise $37 million by now. Due to numerous factors, that estimate was off by $6.5 million. An excellent story by Samantha Wohlfeil in The Bellingham Herald shows where that tax money was spent:
We need a new jail. We also need to evaluate our local criminal justice system. Is what we are doing now giving us the outcomes we want? If your answer is ‘No’ then please Vote NO. And let’s start over.

Statement prepared by: Doug Starcher is a property manager, past president of the York Neighborhood Association, mayor’s Neighborhood Advisory Council, Bellingham Planning Commission, and Bellingham Police Chiefs Advisory Council.

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