Some Spokane County voters may be confused when they see a sales-tax issue on their primary ballots.
There have been no organized campaigns for or against the .1 percent sales tax increase for criminal justice and public safety, and no specific plans have been offered for how the money would be used. The sales-tax increase – which amounts to 10 cents on a $100 purchase – also faces challenges to passage from a simultaneous Spokane Valley property tax issue and lackluster response from officials in other Spokane County towns.
In fact, in the five weeks since Spokane County commissioners originally approved placing the item on the September ballot, it has been largely ignored.
The tax is expected to raise $6 million annually for the next five years. One-third would go to fund criminal justice, with the remainder earmarked for public safety purposes.
Of that, about $3.6 million would go to the county, with the remainder being allocated to Spokane County cities and towns based on population. For instance, the city of Spokane would receive $1.5 million and Spokane Valley would get about $637,000 a year.
Spokane County Commissioner Phil Harris said the money could be used to improve the local law enforcement and fire communications system or even for more jail space.
But he acknowledged no one is really promoting the tax.
“I don’t think a lot of people even know about it,” Harris said.
That’s a real problem, said Commissioner John Roskelley, who opposed placing the tax on the September ballot.
“There’s no accountability. Where’s the money going? It’s just a blank check. There’s been no specific, obvious need that’s been mentioned” in the ballot issue, Roskelley said.
Still, he said it could pass if people read it and fear for their safety.
Spokane County’s largest cities have had lukewarm or even hostile responses to the proposed sales-tax increase.
Spokane Valley City Councilman Steve Taylor said he’s concerned that the sales tax could work against the property tax increase his city has placed on the same ballot. That property-tax levy of 21 cents per $1,000 valuation ($21 on a $100,000 home) would be used to pave roads.
“Having two tax measures on the ballot could be a liability,” Taylor said.
Spokane Deputy Mayor Jack Lynch said Spokane officials are more focused on their own street bond issue, which will be on the November ballot.
“Quite frankly we didn’t know this was coming. We were surprised it was there. So we really haven’t put much thought into it,” said Lynch, when asked how Spokane would use its $1.5 million a year if the sales tax passes.
Last fall, similar sales tax measures met different fates in Walla Walla and Pierce counties.
The Walla Walla .3 percent (30 cents on a $100 purchase) tax passed, in large part due to an active campaign in favor of the measure. Proponents said local law enforcement was suffering because of lowered revenues since the reduction in the state’s motor vehicle excise tax.
“You really have to inform the people,” said Marjorie Carey, who headed up the Walla Walla campaign.
Her group did radio interviews, printed fliers, door-belled and put up yard signs.
Pierce County, however, got crosswise with the Washington State Public Disclosure Commission. The county spent $60,000 on educational materials, and some voters complained the county had advocated for passage of its .3 percent sales tax increase rather than remaining neutral.
The Pierce County fliers were sent only to likely voters (those who had voted in three of the last four elections) rather than all registered voters, like a typical voters guide.
Even with those materials, however, the tax failed to pass. Some Pierce County voters complained to the News Tribune in Tacoma that local jurisdictions didn’t provide enough specifics about how the money would be used.
That could be a problem in Spokane County, too.
Spokane County Sheriff Mark Sterk is pushing for the extra tax dollars, if the issue passes, to be used to update the county’s law enforcement and fire communications system — a $25 million project.
“Our original interest in this was for the radio infrastructure for Spokane County. It is in poor shape. In fact we’re being told the system could fail us at any time,” said Sterk, who added that this is the biggest issue facing law enforcement right now.
But there are no guarantees.
Two new Spokane County commissioners – Roskelley and Kate McCaslin did not seek re-election – could decide to use the money to pay for deputies’ increased medical costs, to fund the county’s methamphetamine task force, which is set to expire at the end of this year, or for other capital improvements.
And other department heads, like the prosecutor’s office and public defender, have been complaining that they don’t have enough money to do their jobs properly.
Even if Spokane County commissioners vote to use their portion for the communications system, each city and town in the county could use its share for whatever criminal justice or public safety purposes it sees fit.
That means Liberty Lake could choose to use its money for extra officers. Or Spokane could use its share to bring back school resource officers.
“There are so many pressing issues facing criminal justice right now that it’s going to be hard for some of these other communities to spend all of the money if this should pass on infrastructure issues,” Sterk said.