July 28, 2009 in Opinion

Editorial: Vote to keep sales tax that benefits public safety


Suppose the Board of Spokane County Commissioners offered you a tax cut, enough to shave almost a penny off the cost of a latte and scone – or 2 cents or more on a large pizza and a couple of soft drinks.

What would you be willing to sacrifice in return for that windfall? A little law enforcement, maybe? How much public safety would you give up to solidify those savings?

Think bigger. A $30,000 new car could now be $30 cheaper. A $1,200 big-screen television could be had for $1.20 less.

That, in essence, is a choice Spokane County voters will have to make in the Aug. 18 primary election.

Five years ago, the question was put to them in reverse. Would voters be willing to invest in public safety by approving an additional one-tenth of 1 percent on the sales tax with the new revenue to be dedicated to public safety? By a 52-48 ratio, the voters said they would – for five years.

That tax is about to end. So all voters have to do to cash in on the offer described above is vote against the proposal. If they turn it down, the one-tenth of 1 percent tax will go away and daily latte drinkers will get the equivalent of their last venti of the year free of charge.

Of course, the county might have fewer sheriff’s deputies available to respond to crimes. And climbing caseloads might prevent the criminal justice system from dealing appropriately with all the suspects who do get arrested.

That’s not a reasonable tradeoff, even for the most hardened caffeine addicts.

The measure’s biggest weakness is the life of the tax. This time it would stay on the books until 2020, twice as long as the tax it’s replacing. But that problem is tempered by the modesty of the tax rate, and it is partly offset by the avoided cost of holding more frequent elections.

Meanwhile, the county is feeling the inescapable effects of the recession. The annual revenue shortfall is now projected at $11.7 million, and that will rise to $16 million if the sliver of sales tax goes away. Spokane County’s cities and towns would lose, too, because they now share more than $2 million generated by the tax.

We’re not eager to raise the sales tax in this community. But the issue before voters Aug. 18 is whether they want to marginally lower a tax they’re already paying. Given that public safety is local government’s most fundamental duty, extending this dedicated tax is a responsible choice.

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