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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