Friday, February 4, 2011

Jail Impacts

Like hundreds of other people, I went to the jail “meeting” last night. The whole saga of the way the jail site is being chosen is pretty fascinating. Plus, it’s a lot of money, and a big decision for our community.

A lot of people wanted to talk to the County about the jail, and what they had to say was compelling: we need the right sized jail in the right place at the right cost.

What we heard back from the County, though, was strange and a bit disturbing. The County’s Environmental Impact Report, or EIS, was the major source of information for the public and for the presentation at the meeting. Last night’s meeting turned a few essential principles of environmental impact assessment on their heads.

First, what the heck did the environmental impact assessment look at? It’s supposed to look at a range of alternatives, and apparently this EIS didn’t even look at any alternatives that the County is now planning to pursue. By the end of the meeting, everybody on the podium was running away from the 800+-bed jail examined by the EIS as fast as they could. A 600-bed jail, they insisted, was what we want.

The point of an environmental impact assessment is to ferret out the alternative that will do the job with the least possible impact on the environment. Or, as the SEPA regulations say, the purpose is to “inform decision makers and the public of reasonable alternatives” that would “avoid or minimize adverse impacts.” To make sure that decisionmakers get the idea, the regulations emphasize that a “reasonable” alternative is “an action that could feasibly attain or approximate a proposal's objectives, but at a lower environmental cost or decreased level of environmental degradation.”

Didn’t anybody even think to look at the impacts of a 600-bed jail in the EIS?

Some people up on the podium said that it was fine that the EIS didn’t look at alternatives that would reduce environmental impacts because the law requires a “worst case scenario.” But the "worst case scenario” only applies when information about the impacts of alternatives is unavailable or incomplete. If the County couldn’t find out what the impacts of its “reasonable alternatives” would be, because of scientific uncertainty or expense, then it could rely on the “worst case scenario” language (linked here).

The jail is a big project, but its impacts can be predicted. There isn’t a lot of uncertainty about what happens when you build in wetlands, far from infrastructure. The “worst case scenario” provision just doesn’t apply to the selection of alternatives.

So the EIS was fundamentally flawed as an informational document. It looks like the process was equally flawed. There was testimony that 70 people had petitioned for a public hearing on the EIS, and that the County had refused to hold a hearing. When 50 or more people petition for a public hearing, the regulations say that a hearing must be held. The hearing has to be held within 50 days of the date that the EIS was issued. The EIS was issued on October 18, 2010.

And no public hearing was held.

But wait a minute, you might say. Wasn’t last night’s meeting a hearing?

Well, no. Not formally, and it was not intended to function as a hearing.

Formally, the meeting was presented to the public as just that – a meeting – with “audience participation.” Here’s the notice. It wasn’t noticed as a hearing.

Once it became clear that the County might have violated the law by not holding a public hearing on the EIS, there were some efforts to backtrack. It was suggested that last night’s meeting was, in fact, a hearing, despite the fact that it didn’t happen within 50 days of the EIS issuance and it wasn’t noticed as a hearing. The County referred to a part of the law that allows a public hearing on an EIS to be held when there is a public hearing on a development permit.

The problem, of course, was that last night’s meeting wasn’t a public hearing on a development permit. It simply wasn’t a public hearing in any legal sense.

Why does that matter? It matters because the County is supposed to want to listen to the public. At the start of the meeting, it was clear that the meeting’s purpose was to inform the public, not the other way around. There was a half hour presentation, and then when audience members got up to speak, somebody on the podium would inform them of the County's position. That’s not a “hearing,” that’s a rationalization of a decision already made.

“The public” noticed this, of course, and got a little feisty, and the folks on the podium backed off. Then the “meeting” started to function as a “hearing.” This was thanks to all those who put in the time and energy to make the County hear the public.

Perhaps the County will do things differently next time. Better late than never – but what a costly lesson this has been. In addition to the large monetary cost of preparing an EIS that didn’t serve its purpose, and in addition to the public time invested, there’s the cost of delay. As everybody agreed at the meeting, we need a new jail. Going about it the right way will ultimately be faster than trying to cut corners.


  1. Are these folks ever going to stop wasting our money by doing things illegally, incorrectly and/or just plain foolishly?

    Sorry - dumb question. Of course they are not. Thanks, County Council, for a job poorly done. (And a real thanks to all the people helping force them out of their back room deals and into the light of public process.)

  2. To be fair, this one isn't the Council's fault. You can place the blame squarely on Pete Kremen's shoulders.

  3. This one hasn't made it to the County Council yet. As Riley notes, it's lodged in the Executive branch, which chose the EIS consultants and presumably worked with them to develop the (bloated) contours of the jail project.

    At the end of the meeting, there was much harumphing about how it will be the County Council that will "approve" the project. But this will always be an Executive-driven project because of its enormous cost. The Council can only "approve" a project that the County can fund, and figuring that out is a job for the Executive.

    Deputy Administrator Dewey Desler said at the meeting that the County is committed to constructing the jail with no increase in taxes. If that's the case, the County needs to show us what kind of jail we can look for, given our current tax revenues.

    I'm not aware of any large pot of jail money that we've been saving up over the years -- the voter-approved jail revenues have been spent. Perhaps that leaves a bond. What bonding authority will believe that the County can repay the cost of a jail through its current tax revenues? Or is there some outside source of revenue that hasn't been disclosed?

    None of these questions was answered at the meeting -- or in the EIS.

  4. What's amazing to me is that the Chief Executive Officer of Law Enforcement in Whatcom County (i.e. Sheriff Elfo) and a member of the Executive Branch of Whatcom Co. Government SUPPORTED the numbers put forth by the Consultants (read his memo in the Draft EIS) and continually lowers his needs projections as the public becomes more and more aware of the size and scope. He began saying 1000, then recently on KGMI 800 and now 600...How mouch responsibility does he have in this whole fiasco?

  5. Elfo's position has always been "We need a new facility". Kremen is responsible for building new facilities and it has been his proposals and his EIS that have been all over the map.

  6. Anonymous,

    Since this is an election year, it's looking like finger-pointing might be the next order of business. I still hope that the next phase for the Administration will be the "fix the project" phase, not the "point fingers at someone else" phase.

  7. The numbers for the first phase of 800-some came from the sheriff's office and not the Executive. The jail administration firmly believ(ed) that if they didn't start out at that size that they would face an overcrowded jail again. Now, the cost and politics is causing people to back pedal on what their true interest is.

    It would be nice if the county got to the work of doing a supplemental EIS that studied new alternatives, including size, location, and alternatives to our rising incarceration rate. If we put some of this funding towards housing, mental health, how much better off as a society would we be?

  8. I find it interesting that the EIS process, which is supposed to ease this kind of conflict by forcing projects into various well described, well defined alternatives, was instead gamed to fit only one outcome.

    I am also continually dismayed by the silly all-or-nothing debate on a vertical versus horizontal design. It either has to sprawl across 60 acres or be 20 stories high. SPLIT THE FRACKING DIFFERENCE, and build a four-story facility on a modest footprint!

    Similarly, there was testimony from LEOs in the smaller cities about transport costs to a non-central jail. Talk about moving the mountain to Mohammad! Install a cage at every PD and run a circulator security bus to every small city 24/7. I'd wager you could pick up a surplus bus from NYPD for next to nothing.

    Are these folks stupid, or do they just not think?

  9. No need to buy a bus. The Whatcom County Sheriff already owns at least one.

  10. "The historical growth in the Whatcom County offender population has been greater than the growth in the County population as a whole. In 1986, the first year for which we have been able to locate ADP figures, the ADP was 118. In 2009, the ADP was 431, translating to an offender growth rate of 265% over 23 years. The comparable County Growth rate was approximately 77%."

    "Based on the growth in the local offender population, we anticipate that the inmate population will continue to increase, exacerbating the crowding levels at the current facilities. This determination has been supported by work done in 2003 and 2008 by consultants hired by Whatcom County to assist in development of the master facilities planning. As part of that process, it was estimated that by 2014 there will be a need for 800-1000 adult custody beds. The current facilities do not have sufficient capacity to accommodate this level of growth." - Bill Elfo 4/23/2010 No Action Alternative Plan

    In his own words, Elfo is using the same flawed data of offender rate of growth and advocating for an 800-1000 bed facility by 2014. Nowhere is this plan does he advise that we only need a 600 bed facility.

    You can't properly calculate inmate rate of growth by simply creating new beds and filling them. The same argument is to burn down houses and point out the exponential increase in homelessness...

    It is interesting that since 2000 the Bellingham Police are incarcerating less and less people, while the Sheriff's Office and others are incarcerating more...

    "In 2000, Bellingham was responsible for approximately 38% of jail bookings. In 2009, that number had dropped to 24% and showed a steady decrease during that period of time. During this same time period, jail bookings went from 6433 in 2000 to 7767 in 2009. So while the number of bookings showed a steady increase, the contribution made by Bellingham has dropped." Chief Wendy Jones 9/17/2010 memo to HDR