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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Max at 2015 Ferndale Citywide Cleanup Day

Ferndale Kiwanis member Max Rosario working at the 2015 Citywide Cleanup Day. (Photo By Wendy Lawrence)

I spent last Saturday with more than 65 other volunteers at the Ferndale Downtown Association’s annual Citywide Cleanup Day. During a break, the conversation turned to how people who complain the most about Ferndale never seem to come to events like Cleanup Day. Don’t people care about our community or how it looks, some volunteers wondered?

I must admit, I do get tired of seeing the same faces at these events, but does that mean there’s something wrong with our community? Most of my adult life involved working long hours at highly stressful jobs, followed by too-short weekends spent running errands and doing household chores. I had little time or energy for volunteering.

Does a strong community require everyone volunteer on weekends even if they’re working 50-60 hours a week at one, two, perhaps three jobs trying to provide for their families? Or are we a strong community because we all work so hard to care for the people we love?

Is picking up garbage together a sign of a strong community or is it lining the streets and filling the high school auditorium to capacity to pay our respects to children of Ferndale who gave their lives for our Nation in a faraway war, though most of us never knew them?

Living in Ferndale is the first time in my life I’ve ever felt part of a community, though I’m not sure I know why exactly. Perhaps it’s because we’re a relatively small city or maybe because I have time now to volunteer. I’m just not sure.

So, what do you think? What makes a city a community? And do you feel part of a community here in Ferndale or is this just the place you live?

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