A contentious vote is headed to the Whatcom County Council Tuesday night over whether or not to raise the sales tax to fund a new county jail.
The Bellingham City Council became the last of seven cities to agree to the county's plan. The plan calls for roughly $100 million to build a new state-of-the-art facility that includes space for patients needing medical and mental health care.
"We have an opportunity to design and go forward with something that is progressive and helps people and makes a difference," said Councilwoman Pinky Vargas.
Vargas and the majority of the council voted Monday night to put the decision in the hands of voters this November.
Most everyone agrees the current building is outdated, too small, and simply doesn't meet the needs of the county on several levels; safety being one of them. In addition to the jail, there's a temporary facility that houses another hundred inmates.
Renovating the current jail would cost $35 million dollars without increasing capacity, and inmates would have to be relocated during construction.
"We have a failing undersized facility just behind us right here that was designed for less than 200 people, and we'll maybe cram 220, 240 in there," said County Councilman Todd Donovan.
Currently, the plan calls for somewhere between 440 and 490 beds. Donovan and others think that's too big, and more money should be spent instead on keeping people out of jail.
As part of the back and forth, the county agreed to earmark $30 million for incarcerations alternatives. A portion of the funding is earmarked for health care at the new facility while another portion would help cut down the amount of time many people spend in jail for minor offenses because they can't make bail. It would expand home monitoring and work-release to keep low-risk offenders out of a system that many argue makes them repeat offenders. In addition to the size, there's the proposed location; on county-owned property in Ferndale five miles north of Bellingham. Nobody on the city council is a fan, especially Council President Michael Lilliquist.
"This is where the bus lines run. This is where the attorneys are located. This is where the courthouse is. This is where the sheriff's office is. This is where the police department is," Lilliquist said.
But he and others understand improving upon what they have now comes at a cost, and the county has much deeper pockets to help carry the load. Now the vote falls to the county council which is expected to approve it Tuesday night. Donovan will cast the same vote he did last time.
"I don't want to go back to the voters with what they've essentially said no to," he said.
Voters turned down a similar measure in 2015. But with more emphasis focused on helping people instead of just locking them up, it might find the support it needs.
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