Whatcom County Jail

WCSO Jail - Front

Okay, here we go. Where to begin? There are many issues of importance and significance facing citizens of Whatcom County, Washington.

Some are more or less than others and some are insignificant in my estimation. I imagine we’ll get around to most of them in time, so let’s just dive in and get down to it. Of the issues of greater significance to all that I’m aware of, chief amongst those at the present time, in my estimation, are the current plans for a replacement county jail.

First, before going any further, I feel obligated to say upfront that I’m kind of diving into the middle of this without the benefit of being fully informed of the current status. I am aware of many aspects though and have been following the posts of others who have been very active in the process, so where I’m not fully up to speed now, I intend to be very soon.

Second, I do have considerable knowledge of the backstory of the jail evolution from an insider perspective as a former Deputy Sheriff of Whatcom County. I’ve been inside many times as a function of my former duties and have the benefit of many previous contacts, personal conversations, first hand observations and the like. Point is, I’m pretty familiar with how this current push came about and how it’s evolved into what it is now.

With that in mind, we do need a replacement jail. I don’t think there’s a reasonable argument to that. We have had need of a new jail for some time now. I’ve seen the damages, the wear, the broken items, the cracks in the walls, etc. However, something is amiss in the reasoning we’re all being media blitzed with now.

Currently, the county has completed the purchase of the new jail site property on LaBounty Rd. in Ferndale, just west of the intersection with Sunset Ave. The price tag for that piece of property was $6 million as I understand it. The recent Bellingham Herald article indicated that the price tag for the project has reached a new high of approximately $135 million (Yes, you read that right) and that’s where I’d like to begin.

For a county of this size, 208,351 (according 2014 US Census data), or approximately 1/34th of the total for Washington State’s 39 counties combined, doesn’t that register as being a bit on the high side? Quite a bit, I think and a number of questions come to mind as well, like how did we get from the need for a basic jail, to what appears to be a plan for a Taj Mahal jail?

This is cause for concern on the expenditure alone, but let’s go beyond that to a couple of examples of jails that haven’t turned out so well in spite of every assurance by elected officials to the contrary on the front end.

Once finished, Thurston County’s brand new $50 million dollar jail, completed 4 years ago…..hadn’t seen a single inmate as of the date of this 2014 article in The Olympian. The reason? Funding. Apparently the actual operating costs came as a complete surprise to local Thurston County officials.

Next we look to Wayne County, Michigan (Detroit), where officials conned the voters into building a $300 million dollar jail, broke ground 4 years prior and spiraling costs forced the project to be shut down 4 years ago. Detroit finally pulled the plug on the project and it is now unfinished AND costing taxpayers $1.2 million per month in debt service and upkeep just to maintain the incomplete albatross facility.

The comments of Rose Bogaert, head of the Wayne County Taxpayers Association and chair of the Michigan Taxpayer Alliance said it all for me:

“The Wayne County Jail was a mess since it was created. At this point, the only thing we should do is cut our losses…. If someone is willing to purchase it, we should sell it. Everyone knows that these projects never stay within budget, and this one was in a bad location to begin with,” she added. “It never made sense. There needs to be more thought put into these projects before they start building.”

Yes. I agree. That’s the thing that this taxpaying resident sees missing from the discussion and reporting on this jail project and that’s what needs to be addressed right now.

This part was particularly intriguing to me:

“The Wayne County Jail was originally proposed as a $300 million, 2,000-bed jail that would combine the other county correctional facilities. Ground was broken on the work site in September 2011, but was stalled nearly two years later, in June 2013, when a 60-day suspension was imposed after projected cost overruns totaled nearly $100 million. Construction never resumed, and later that summer, the Wayne County Prosecutor’s Office launched an investigation into the project.

The investigation led to the arrest of former Wayne County Chief Financial Officer Carla Sledge, attorney Steven Collins and construction manager Anthony Parlovecchio.”

Supporters will no doubt say, ‘Well, that’s Detroit.’ While that may be true, I’d counter that $135 million dollars for a relatively small county, population-wise, even with our border exposure and special considerations that come with it, still just doesn’t add up.

Additionally, the way this jail project is being undertaken gives additional cause for alarm.

Post script:
I did some figuring on my handy calculator and came up with this. Based on current US Census data, the total county population is 208,351 persons. If you subtract from that number those under 18 years of age and those over 65, roughly 35.2% of those persons are not in the labor force, or 73,339 persons.

That leaves approximately 135,012 county residents who would potentially be earning wages and paying taxes (at full employment, which we all know it’s not). So the best case is approximately $1,000 per person in additional jail tax today, assuming the project remained within budget.

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