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Many have hands out for piece of sales tax

 (The Spokesman-Review)
(The Spokesman-Review)

A sales tax increase approved by voters last month may help improve public safety in Spokane County – but probably not by putting police officers on the beat.

That’s because leaders are hesitant to use the tax, which will last for five years starting Jan. 1, to fund long-term positions.

“Anything we spend the money on, we have to realize that this may go away,” said Spokane County Commissioner Kate McCaslin.

On Sept. 14, Spokane voters approved a 0.1 percent tax increase (that’s 10 cents on a $100 purchase) to be used for criminal justice and public safety. The tax, which was placed on the ballot by county commissioners, was not earmarked for specific purposes within those categories. Still, leaders say all of it will be spent on new expenses in city police departments, the Sheriff’s Office, the jail or the courts.

The tax is expected to raise about $6 million a year. Spokane County will get 60 percent of the money with the rest divided among the cities in the county on a per capita basis.

Final decisions on how the money will be spent will rest with county commissioners and the various city councils as they prepare their 2005 budgets in coming weeks.

Communications problem

Sheriff Mark Sterk wants a large portion of the tax to pay to replace – or at least improve – the county’s emergency communications system, which serves police officers, deputies and firefighters. Before commissioners voted to place the tax on the ballot, Sterk had requested that it be set aside for public safety communications. The money wasn’t earmarked, McCaslin said, because the commission believed it and the cities needed flexibility.

Much of the communications equipment – including radios and towers – that Sterk hopes to replace is 20 to 30 years old. The sheriff said some areas of the county don’t get coverage and equipment doesn’t allow adequate contact between deputies and firefighters.

“Many of the towers being used are either damaged or in bad condition,” a 2002 county report on the system says. “This is a critical situation putting emergency communications at risk.”

Costs of the system are borne by the agencies that use it. Sterk estimated that the county’s cost of fixing it will be about $11.6 million. The total cost of new communications equipment could be $25 million, he said.

“They have Band-Aided this thing to death over the last decade,” Sterk said. “My goal is to get it fixed before I retire.”

Other department leaders say they, too, would like to see the communications system modernized.

“We have not put the resources in the system, and now we have a system that needs a major overhaul,” Spokane Valley Police Chief Cal Walker said.

Although brass at the Spokane Police Department haven’t decided what it will request with the city’s portion of new taxes, police spokesman Dick Cottam said getting new communications equipment is a priority.

Still, using the city’s portion of the tax for a communications system isn’t a done deal.

“We’re mindful of the county’s interests,” Spokane Deputy Mayor Jack Lynch said. “But we have to determine our needs and priorities.”

‘Welcome relief’

In the current economy, local police and other agencies have been asked to scale back, and the new tax is seen as a way to stop the bleeding.

“Obviously, it’s kind of a windfall to us,” Lynch said. “It’s some welcome relief.”

In August, the Spokane Police Department had to eliminate a program that put six police officers and a sergeant in schools. As recently as last month, the Spokane Valley Police Department was facing a loss of as many as nine officers for next year. Walker said it now appears the department will be able to maintain its 100-officer force.

Even though leaders are reluctant to pay for new positions with the tax, the money could be used to pay for other one-time expenses, which could free up dollars to at least maintain current staffing levels. Department leaders also mentioned that they might request money for a temporary work force.

By law, the money cannot be used to pay for positions or programs that already exist. It can be used for program expansions, new positions and one-time expenses.

“We will spend the money on what we legally can spend it on and free up the general fund dollars to do what we need to do,” Sterk said.

The ability to shift the money concerns former county Commissioner John Roskelley, who voted against putting the tax on the ballot. Because the money wasn’t earmarked for specific purposes, it’s difficult to tell if it’s actually improving public safety, he said.

“I don’t think you can follow the money,” Roskelley said. “It’s supposed to be for a new program. There’s no way to check that to know how it’s used.”

Other county departments hope to see a share of the tax dollars.

“There’s a lot of people who want that money who all have legitimate demands,” McCaslin said.

The Superior Court, for instance, wants to use some of the money to pay for temporary judges to help reduce case backlogs. Since the last new judge position was filled about five years ago, annual case filings have steadily increased, causing civil cases to see repeated delays, presiding Judge Linda Tompkins said.

Public defenders also hope to see a reduction of their average caseload through a personnel increase, said John Rodgers, director of Spokane County Defenders. The average Spokane County defender handles 175 felony and 477 misdemeanor cases annually, he said. That load is higher than recommended by the State Bar Association.

Tompkins said she hopes the new money will be spread fairly throughout criminal justice agencies.

“It doesn’t make much sense to place the bulk of any new resource in one of the multiple legs of the stool,” Tompkins said. “The other parts of the system aren’t simply going to be able to keep up. The result will not be an improvement in the overall administration of justice.”

Close count

The tax increase passed last month with 51.7 percent approval. The measure would not have been passed without the support of Spokane residents, especially from the city’s South Hill. The measure failed in Spokane Valley and in the unincorporated parts of Spokane County.

Some voters complained they were unaware that the measure was even up for a vote. Others said there wasn’t enough accountability for the money.

“I voted no on this issue precisely because the sponsors did not give us any indication how the money would be used,” Spokane resident Stan Roth wrote in an e-mail to The Spokesman-Review. “I’m not in the habit of writing blank checks to anyone, and that is exactly what the voters did on this issue.”

Still, voters cited a desire for better protection and news of recent police cuts as reasons they approved the measure.

“Local governments are having trouble paying for the law enforcement and criminal justice services that I need as a citizen,” Deer Park resident G. Thomas Clark wrote in an e-mail. “I really don’t care that is not earmarked. I trust that it will be spent wisely.”