County turns to voters to extend sales tax hike
Facing a growing budget shortfall now estimated at $11.7 million, Spokane County commissioners Tuesday endorsed an extension of a small hike in the local sales tax for law enforcement and criminal justice programs.
County voters will be asked in the Aug. 18 primary election to extend the one-tenth of 1 percent sales tax originally approved in 2004. Rather than the five-year life span voters approved then, they’ll be asked to extend it to 2020.
“This is a vital function for the criminal justice system,” Sheriff Ozzie Knezovich told commissioners.
The sales tax – which amounts to $1 on a purchase of $1,000 – raised about $7 million in 2008, with 60 percent of it going to the county and the rest split among cities based on population. Without the tax, county tax revenue would be down about $4.3 million next year, on top of the current projected shortfall of $11.7 million.
The sales tax money is spent on public safety, including extra county prosecutors and public defenders, court, jail and sheriff’s personnel, and medical examiner staff and equipment. Over the past two years, it covered more than $500,000 a year in overtime costs in the sheriff’s department, brought on in part by reductions in the overall number of staff, Knezovich said.
One thing it has not been used for, however, is a new emergency communications system, which voters were told would be a priority for funding when the tax increase was on the ballot in 2004. That was the hope of some public officials at the time, including Knezovich’s predecessor Sheriff Mark Sterk. But members of the previous board wanted to remain flexible in the way the money was used.
Knezovich said the county should expect questions from some voters who think they were misled in 2004.
Board Chairman Todd Mielke said previous public officials did talk about a new emergency communications system as a way some of the sales tax money might be used, but they could never reach a consensus. This time, it’s clear that the money will pay for 38 jobs in criminal justice and law enforcement, he said.
Mielke, a Republican, said he’d be reluctant to impose a new tax but supports the ballot measure. “We’re going to continue what we’re already doing, not impose anything new.”
Commissioner Mark Richard, also a Republican, said the tax extension represents a choice between “a yes on the side of taxes or a yes on the side of public safety.” He said he’d back the latter.
Commissioner Bonnie Mager, a Democrat, said the extension may be more critical now than when first approved in 2004. “All the departments are sorely in need of money.”