The Ongoing Jail Saga

There’s another story in the Bellingham Herald this morning (link below) about the quest for a new County jail. Bellingham would prefer a mix of increased sales tax (0.1%) and property taxes because they’d like to hold on to their ability to use the remaining 0.1% for some future public safety need. Ferndale, the other cities and the County, agreed to forego our future ability to raise sales tax to fund public safety because it seemed like the least painful way to pay for a much-needed project that would serve the entire County.

While I appreciate Bellingham’s concerns about losing their ability to use a future 0.1% increase in sales tax, I don’t think Ferndale residents would agree to raise their property taxes to pay for a new jail and increased funding for diversion programs. Though I think the majority of us agree the County needs a new facility and more funds to better care for our mentally ill and/or addicted neighbors, this November, Ferndale residents will be asked to increase their property taxes to fund a new parks district, and in 2016 they’ll be asked to fund a new Ferndale high school – two very large requests for a small city.

Unlike Bellingham, Ferndale doesn’t have the luxury of $20 million in annual sales tax revenues, so when we need money for capital projects we must ask our voters to raise their property taxes. Given everything Ferndale needs to do in our own City, it would be challenging for our citizens to take on an increase in County property taxes no matter how worthy the project. And yes, sales tax is regressive and falls disproportionately on the poorest among us, but many people on fixed incomes, as well as the working poor, also own homes and will be hit hard by an increase in property taxes. Landlords may also pass on any property tax increase to their renters.

I do agree that we as a society need to devise better methods to help our community members who are unable to function due to mental illness or addiction, but I believe that is a separate issue from the need for a modern jail facility. Sadly, if we found a way today to help every mentally ill or addicted person in Whatcom County cope with their affliction, there would still be people who hurt others and need to be incarcerated for the safety of the community. I hope there will come a day when people think before getting into a car knowing they’re unfit to drive, when every child grows up in a safe, loving home learning to be a kind, loving adult, and when taking a pill every morning quells a neighbor’s violent paranoia, but there are too many years between that world and world we live in to pretend we don’t need jails anymore.

Bottom line: we need a new jail and we need to revamp our diversion methods. It is not a one or the other decision. No one wants to put our mentally ill or addicted neighbors in jail, and I believe we can all commit ourselves to revamping our existing diversion programs or creating new programs to help them become productive members of society. But if we build a smaller, less expensive jail, as some people want, will it still serve our needs 10 years from now? And how long can we keep putting people in our current jail, which isn’t fit for human beings?

I do like the idea of a task force as long as all the stakeholders are equally represented, and given the state of our current jail, a Plan B needs to come together ASAP. I just hope everyone on the task force remembers that property tax increases also hurt the poor.

Related Bellingham Herald Article

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8 thoughts on “The Ongoing Jail Saga

  1. I am astounded that a Ferndale City Councilmember writing a long and detailed piece about about a jail that is anything but “modern (by the way)” can entirely leave out the fact that the 40 acre jail/sheriff’s headquarters is to be build within Ferndale city limits—that’s a 500-600 bed jail, and headquarters for over 100 sheriff’s deputies…Can you say “Coupeville”…or “Walla Walla”? And say we leave the wrongheadedness of this anachronism they’re proposing as a jail aside for a moment, how can Councilwoman Watkins not mention the proposed location to the town residents she ostenbly represents? This City Council must change, which is why I’m running for Council Position 3…Councilman Olsen?

    • My name is Watson, Glenn. Councilwoman Cathy Watson. And yes, the proposed jail would be in Ferndale, which is something that’s been discussed for more than a year. Mea culpa if I confused anyone.

      • people aren’t confused…Every resident to whom I mention the Jail-coming-to-town (I speak 5 days a week with about 250 Ferndale residents) is both surprised and aghast…the whole point of my candidacy is premised upon a primary issue in two parts: A) residents here are not well informed about major local issues that impact them for a variety of reasons, some of which City Hall can fix, and B) When I’ve raised this issue I’ve been told by high-ranking city elected officials that the problem is “voter apathy,” and “ballots are expensive,” and “we have town meetings announced in the media” (a good showing is 100 people out of over 11,000)….

        That should cause serious introspection on the part of officials…self-aware people would see such a circumstance and ask: “What’s this really about?…It cannot be that 10,900 residents out of 11,000 don’t care.”

        One of my contentions is that we elected our mayor and Council to represent us, not the sheriff, not the county, and so our representatives’ first obligation is to us. We were not asked what we thought the Mayor & Council should do about this. Bellingham residents are raising hell, and low & behold the fast train to jail-town has slowed…sure it’s about funding mechanisms now, but the skepticism and scrutiny is increasing as the process is slowed….so you & the other candidates can tell me another story about how Ferndale could have done nothing to stop this…Of course in the strictest sense it’s true, ironically since Ferndale government has done ‘nothing,’ unless fully cooperating without objection, or getting the view of the residents here counts as ‘something.’

    • Mr Stewart, I think you missed Councilwoman Watson’s point. Ferndale residents cannot continue to have their property taxes raised every time there is a need in the city. Local government needs reform. Smaller cities in our County don’t have the revenue stream that Bellingham does nor can we continue to have our taxes raised every time there is a need. In regard to the jail, have you taken the time to tour the current jail? I have. I encourage you to tour the facility. Perhaps when you see it for yourself you will feel differently. I don’t think anyone wants to incarcerate mentally ill folks. Jail staff and inmates know all too well that the current state of affairs is not the best for anyone. What ideas do you have to specifically address these needs and how would you fund the care of our mentally ill? Again, my take away from Councilwoman Watson’s article wasn’t build the biggest jail, neglect the mentally ill and stick the residents of Ferndale with the bill. My takeaway was local government needs reform. I applaud Ms Watson for remembering that she works for the residents of Ferndale and as Mayor, Councilwoman Watson would continue to work for the good of our community.

      • My objection is and has been for a year, the misguided jail proposal notwithstanding, the choice to put it inside Ferndale City limits…it is irrational and ridiculous especially considering the myriad alternatives. How it’s funded, and how resources are to be allocated are part of the debate, especially as of late with the bellingham city council chiming in with wise scrutiny, hard questions—they’ve slowed this beast down, and good for them. Either my City elected officials think the 40 acre jail/sheriff’s complex being located inside ferndale city limits is a good idea, or they don’t. Time for them to both articulate from the highest mountain to those who elected them that it’s slated to come here, what it is, and what it will cost—and then each may declare from the same mountain whether or not they think building it here is a good idea. That’s all I’ve ever asked—for over a year now—and I’ve yet to get a straight answer.

        • You’ve said this many times on many venues, but for anyone else reading your comment, it’s important they know that a “Jail” is deemed an “Essential Public Facility” by the State of Washington, and Ferndale had no choice, legally, in whether or not to accept it. The County chose the proposed location, then City Staff worked hard to make the design fit Ferndale, as best we could within the law. I don’t want a jail in our community, Glenn, and I’ve said so in public forums, but we need a new facility in this County and it has to be somewhere. Bottom line – the current jail is a disaster waiting to happen and we need to build a new facility. And if you ever want to talk face-to-face about this or any issue, please let me know. Web comments and Facebook postings aren’t good communication tools.

  2. Can you all think of any reasons why a lot of replies in this thread don’t show up on my page when my husband, Glenn shares it with me?

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