County Releases EIS, Prepares to Purchase Jail SitePermalink +
Mon, Nov 18, 2013, 10:59 am // Riley Sweeney
In all the flurry over curious Port results, Doug Ericksen for Congress and my all-male Odds and Ends last week, the recent activity on the jail almost went unnoticed. However, Whatcom County has taken two very big steps toward building a new jail in the last couple of weeks, and I wanted to give you an update.
First, the Environmental Impact Statement has finally been completed. After receiving 47 comments from citizens, businesses and public agencies, they have finished the EIS. Good news, there are not any new significant concerns with the land, it is large enough, in a location with minimal impacts to the surrounding neighbors and with easy I-5 access.
The bad news is how the jail consultants responded to citizen feedback. I was at the hearing where citizen after citizen poured their heart out, telling personal stories and advocating for increased mental health services as part of the package to reduce incarceration needs. This was their exact response, found on page 7 of the Final EIS:
"Several citizens advocated for strengthened mental health programs or mental triage facilities as an alternative or preventative to incarceration. While it is true that a significant portion of offenders in the jail have mental health issues, they are incarcerated because they have violated a state or local law. Law enforcement has little if any latitude in those situations.
Whatcom County supports and encourages the diversion of appropriate mentally ill offenders into the mental health and community support systems. It must plan, however, for what appears to be actual need for jail capacity. It cannot responsibly ignore the factual information which indicates that mentally ill offenders will exist into the future and that sufficient space needs to be provided to house them in a humane manner."
It would be difficult for me to craft a more tone deaf response. In a memorandum included at the end of the EIS, Whatcom County jail administrator, Wendy Jones, acknowledges that more than $17 million has been cut from community health services statewide, but says, "We cannot responsibly ignore the factual information which indicates that mentally ill offenders will be with us now and into the future, and sufficient space needs to be provided to house them in a humane manner."
It seems there is a profound level of cynicism on the part of the county here. It seems their attitude is, "Boy, it's a shame that mental health services are chronically underfunded, but oh well, they don't really help anyway." I would hope that the County Council takes a more forward looking perspective and starts seriously funding mental health in our community.
The other frustrating aspect of the EIS is the contortions the document goes through over the number of jail beds. The document was written to assess a jail of 660 beds, but throughout the material, it reasserts that the first phase will only be for 521 beds. The rationale for this is that if and when we need to expand to 660 beds, a new EIS will not be required.
However, there is no timeline for when Phase Two will be implemented and I worry about mission creep: "If it is going to be 660 beds eventually, we might as well put up the structures while we have the guys out here, that way, we don't have to hire again." With changing laws, incarceration rates dropping and, hopefully, increased support for mental health services, we might not need 660 beds for another 50-60 years. I hope everyone involved in the process considers the question, "Why spend the money now, when things are tight?"
Speaking of money, the county moved the money in preparation for purchasing the LaBounty site. With the deal for the land expiring at the end of the year, the County Council has scheduled a discussion on the subject for the regular council meeting on Nov. 26th, with a final vote on the purchase scheduled for December 10th. The property will cost around $6.6 million dollars, a small part of the proposed $109 million that will be spent on this facility.
Despite some concerns about ignoring downtown Bellingham as a location, the County Council made the decision, last December, to locate the jail in the county. This site has been vetted with multiple studies and has been under consideration for almost two years. Considering where we are now and where we need to be, I have no problem with them purchasing the property. It is a necessary step forward.
However, just because we are purchasing the property does not mean we have finalized the design and implementation of the jail. It is just the first step and there will be several more decision points along the way. At every step, I will advocate for increased funding for mental health services, drug and juvenile court, and alternatives to punitive bail to ensure we reduce the need for such a large facility.
Join me at the County Council meeting November 26th in urging the council to fund mental health services as part of a package when building this new jail.
Mon, Nov 18, 2013, 10:59 am // Riley SweeneyThe county takes two big steps forward on the new jail, while still missing the point
Tue, Nov 05, 2013, 8:21 pm // John ServaisWith lots of outside county money flowing in to our local races, this election is weird. But real - and we county residents have spoken.
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Wed, Oct 02, 2013, 5:40 am // Riley SweeneyRiley uncovers how the Coal Industry is funding conservative candidates in Whatcom County
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Fri, May 24, 2013, 12:18 am // Guest writerMarian Beddill provides a general guide for the public, with a look at the history of water rights in Washington state.
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Wed, May 22, 2013, 10:12 am // Guest writerBy Guest Writer Nicole Brown. This is a call to action for county citizens as the county tries to ram through the slaughterhouse rezones.
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Tue, Jan 22, 2013, 6:19 pm // Wendy HarrisLinks to a few noteworthy GPT scoping comments .
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Sun, Jan 06, 2013, 11:49 pm // Wendy HarrisWatch the Whatcom County Council wiggle its way out of the latest round of GMA compliance requirements for Lake Whatcom
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Sun, Jun 17, 2012, 8:52 am // Paul deArmondPort Commissioner Scott Walker and attorney Frank Chmelik get caught ballot-rigging again
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Tue, Apr 24, 2012, 12:02 am // Guest writerDevelopers are gaming the system with help from the county government - and big changes are made in multiple small changes.
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Tue, Apr 10, 2012, 7:52 pm // John ServaisAn illegal serial Port Commission meeting should be investigated by the State Auditor, and two commissioners should be made accountable for their actions.
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Mon, Apr 02, 2012, 11:43 am // Larry HorowitzWhere to begin? Misinformation. Disinformation. Truths. Myths. Same old, same old. Paradigm shift. GMA. OFM. Growth pressures. Population loss. Growth subsidies. Proportionate share.
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Sat, Feb 18, 2012, 3:03 pm // Guest writerNo EIS - no real county planning concern about developing Squalicum Mountain and degrading Lake Whatcom water even further.
Tue, Jan 31, 2012, 8:36 am // Paul deArmondPort Commissioner Scott Walker and attorney Frank Chmelik get caught ballot-rigging again
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Wed, Jan 25, 2012, 10:42 am // Riley SweeneyRiley visits the local WorkSource center and interviews the regional director
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Wed, Dec 14, 2011, 8:05 am // Wendy HarrisClaiming it is unfair to treat large property owners different than small property owners, the Commission refuses to remove industrial areas from buffer mitigation proposal.
Wed, Dec 07, 2011, 8:00 am // Wendy HarrisTell the Planning Commission to eliminate this loophole
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Sun, Dec 04, 2011, 5:53 pm // Tip JohnsonWherein the sooty prospect of economic necessity rears its ugly head
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