August 1, 2017 Sandy Robson
Whatcom County Sheriff Bill Elfo was a guest on KGMI’s “Saturday Morning Live” (SML) talk radio program, hosted by local Tea Partier, Kris Halterman. Sheriff Elfo was there to discuss the proposed new Whatcom County Jail which would be funded by a sales tax. That sales tax would last for the next thirty years. The jail sales tax proposition will appear on the November general election ballot, to be rejected or approved by Whatcom County voters. The link to the July 22, 2017, SML podcast is:
While advocating for the new jail proposal, Sheriff Elfo told listeners that the County is going to have to put $7 million into the existing jail regardless of whether voters approve or reject the proposed jail sales tax just in order to take care of some things that are needed. Some examples he gave of those, were issues such as; some cell doors which can be kicked open by inmates; cell doors that allow inmates to lock themselves in their cells, which he said, can present a dangerous situation if someone’s being assaulted and corrections officers can’t get into the cells to help; and some windows which inmates can push out. The sheriff said, “the place [County jail facility] is literally falling apart.”
Then Sheriff Elfo went on to say something that appeared to place blame for the deterioration of the County Jail on Whatcom County’s Facilities Management Department. Elfo stated:
“Especially when routine maintenance was ignored for the most part — for a decade and a half we couldn’t get any work done. There was an unwillingness to spend money to keep the facility functioning. I operate the jail, but, I don’t have any control over the physical plant. That’s part of the County Facilities [Management] Department decisions that are made by another office of county government and there was just an unwillingness to spend money to take care of some of these issues that should have been addressed years and years ago.”
The claim that there was an unwillingness to spend money on the part of Whatcom County’s Facilities Management Department to take care of issues such as the ones referenced above that Sheriff Elfo brought up, caused me to pick up the phone today, August 2, and call the County Facilities Manager, Mike Russell.
When I spoke with Mr. Russell, I told him that my call to him was prompted by my having listened to the July 22, 2017, SML radio program, and hearing some remarks Sheriff Elfo made regarding what he described as an unwillingness by the Facilities Management Department to spend money on needed repairs at the County jail facility.
Mr. Russell explained that his department operates under a budget which currently is approximately $3 million, and that budget is what it takes to maintain the buildings. He told me that “the jail is a priority for us,” and said, “We fix everything that comes our way.”
I asked him to explain just exactly how do those things come his department’s way — what is the process to get things/issues fixed. He explained that needed repairs are generated by work orders. Once a work order is received by the Facilities Management Department, then it is assigned according to expertise, and his department tracks those work orders from start to finish.
I asked Mr. Russell who, or what entity, submits those work orders. He said that Corrections Deputies are the ones who take care of the jail so they usually are the ones who submit the jail-related work orders. He added that those Corrections Deputies do not need approval of any kind, from the Sheriff’s Department for those work orders.
From my phone conversation with Mr. Russell, and a subsequent phone conversation today with Whatcom County Chief of Corrections, Wendy Jones, my understanding is that in the case of a project that would be proposed as needed, then that can originate from the Sheriff’s office and/or the County Executive’s office, or the Facilities Management Office. Mr. Russell said that for a larger project that would have an associated larger cost, then if that money is not in the Facilities Management Department’s budget, then monies can be obtained through the process of going through the Executive’s office, and then if approved by that office, to then submit the proposed funding vehicle for such a project to the County Council for approval.
Mr. Russell did acknowledge that there was a reluctance to spend money on repairs/projects when looking at a possible new County jail a couple of years ago, however, I did not ask him to clarify whether the reluctance was on the part of his department, or the County Sheriff’s office, or the County Executive’s office, or a combination of some of those entities. I will be seeking further clarification on that point, as I did not obtain that during my phone call with Mr. Russell.
From talking with both Mike Russell and Wendy Jones, it is my understanding that the Corrections Deputies are under the purview/overseeance of the Sheriff’s Office. So, if they are primarily the ones who generate jail-related work orders, then why does the Sheriff claim he has “no control over the physical plant?” And, if Mike Russell, Facilities Manager, says that his department fixes everything that comes his department’s way in terms of jail-related work orders, then who or what is preventing the needed repairs that Sheriff Elfo says should have been addressed years ago?
If an unwillingness to perform needed maintenance is the major contributor in terms of the state of disrepair our existing jail is in, then how will this not continue to be an issue should voters approve the sales tax to fund the huge price tag of the proposed new jail whenever it will inevitably require maintenance in the future?
The people of Whatcom County deserve answers.