September 1, 2017 Sandy Robson
Back on August 2, 2017, I had written a piece about having heard Whatcom County Sheriff Bill Elfo, who was a guest on KGMI’s “Saturday Morning Live” (SML) July 22, 2017, conservative 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, a tax that would last for the next 30 years. The jail sales tax proposition will appear on the November general election ballot, to be rejected or approved by Whatcom County voters.
During the program, it appeared that Elfo placed the blame for the deterioration of the County Jail on Whatcom County’s Facilities Management Department when he 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.”
When Elfo states that “routine maintenance was ignored for the most part — for a decade and a half we couldn’t get any work done,” and that there was, “an unwillingness to spend money to keep the facility functioning,” it seems germane to note that the decade and a half time frame he pointed to, corresponds with the span of time Elfo has been the sheriff of Whatcom County, which is since 2003.
The claim that there was an unwillingness to spend money on the part of Whatcom County’s Facilities Management Department to take care of maintenance and repair issues which were needed at the existing County Jail, caused me to contact the County Facilities Manager, Mike Russell, on August 2.
Here is a link to the August 2, 2017, piece I wrote relating to Sheriff Elfo’s remarks about the jail issue that he made during the July 22nd show, and relating to my phone conversation with Russell: http://wp.me/p6lxPl-2QB
In my discussion with Russell, he had acknowledged that there was a reluctance to spend money on repairs/projects when looking at a possible new County jail a couple of years ago. For whatever reason, at the time I spoke to him, I did not think to 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.
So, I contacted Russell, via email, on August 3rd, seeking further clarification on that point, and asked him whether that 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.
He responded in an August 10 email:
“To Answer you [sic] follow-up question ‘any issues regarding the Main Jail is dealt with a consensus agreement with the Sheriff’s Office, the Executive’s Office and the Council.’
“Facilities is the Department that cares [sic] out these directions, help with the scope, cost estimating, design, construction management and insures that things are done to code and follow the requirements of the Public Works in the RCW’s.”
I sent a reply email to Russell that same day, saying that I was confused a bit by his answer, adding that I was also unsure why he placed quotation marks around that phrase, “any issues regarding the Main Jail is dealt with a consensus agreement with the Sheriff’s Office, the Executive’s Office and the Council.”
In addition, I told him that it seemed his overall response did not fully answer my question, unless I was just not understanding something in what he had written.
Russell replied in an August 11 email and clarified as to where the reluctance to spend money on repairs/projects was coming from, saying:
“The reluctance would be a combination of those departments. My understanding is since the County was focusing their efforts on a New Jail the decision makers (Executive, Sheriff, Council) did not see it wise to spend millions of dollars on the major repairs/reconfiguration projects for the existing jail. The Facilities Department has continued to do day to day maintenance of the existing jail. The Facilities Department does what we are directed to do and that is to carry out those directions, help with the scope, cost estimating, design, construction management and insures that things are done to code and follow the requirements of the Public Works in the RCW’s.”
To the best of my knowledge, during the last several years, during which, County Executive Jack Louws and Sheriff Bill Elfo have been focusing their efforts on funding a new County Jail, the County Council (that has been in place since January 2014) has not denied any request for authorization for funding outside of the Facilities Department’s annual budget, that would be needed for repairs/projects in terms of the existing County Jail.
The sheriff’s statements during the July 22, SML radio program can give the impression that decisions to order needed repairs/projects to the existing County Jail are not under his purview. However, according to the County’s Facilities Manager, Mike Russell, his Facilities Management Department does what they “are directed to do and that is to carry out those directions.”
So, the Facilities Department only carries out the decision-makers’ directions — it does not direct. All of this then, leads me to conclude:
The “unwillingness to spend money to take care of some of these issues that should have been addressed years and years ago,” that Sheriff Elfo referenced during the July 22, SML program, was actually on the part of either the Sheriff’s office, or the County Executive’s office, or both of those offices.
Sheriff Elfo had stated on the July 22, SML program 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.”
According to the report released in October 2016, prepared for the County by design2 LAST, the estimated cost over a 20-year horizon to make repairs and renovations to both the existing Whatcom County Jail building and the Whatcom County Work Center, would be approximately $33 million. It is my understanding that the $7 million amount Elfo said would have to be put into the jail regardless of whether voters approve or reject the proposed jail sales tax, is already included in the $33 million estimate total.
In the County’s May 1, 2017, final financing projections document (http://www.co.whatcom.wa.us/DocumentCenter/View/28156), a chart shows the estimated cost of the proposed new Whatcom County Jail to be $110,100,000. However, that chart seems to have some cost figures that contradict some of the information we have heard from the County, and the chart does not seem to include all of the pieces and parts of the new jail project. Some people following the jail issue closely have estimated the cost of the proposed new Whatcom County Jail to be more around the $150 million mark. Whatever that estimated figure really is, the public, especially voters in the upcoming November election, need to know the real numbers which include all the parts and pieces of the proposed County Jail project.
I think that it makes much better sense to keep the existing jail and make the needed repairs and renovations suggested in the report by design2 LAST, which over a 20-year horizon, would cost an estimated $33 million. Over the next decade or more, there are likely going to be major developments throughout our country in terms of changes and advancements in areas such as incarceration reduction, modifications to the bail system, etc., that will affect the potential size of our new jail facilities that would be needed in the future and the kind of jail facilities that would be needed and wanted for our County.
Also, I don’t think that we should be saddled with a regressive sales tax that will last for the next 30 years in order to build a new and bigger jail when there seems to have been a pattern where either the County Executive’s office, or the Sheriff’s office, or both, have not been willing to spend money to keep the existing jail facility functioning, and a pattern of allowing the jail facilities to deteriorate to the degree those have. By rejecting the sales tax proposition for funding a new and bigger County Jail on the November ballot, and by keeping the existing jail and making the needed repairs and renovations, it will then allow the public ample time to observe County officials’ future handling of the County Jail facilities to see if they can establish a proven track record of properly maintaining our publicly-owned jail facilities, thereby re-gaining the public’s trust.