March 25, 2009 in City

County puts criminal-justice sales tax back on ballot

Extended tax of 0.1 percent would raise $7 million a year
Thomas Clouse Staff writer
 

Special election

When: May 19

What: Voters will be asked to reauthorize a 0.1 percent sales tax for 10 years.

Another criminal justice tax measure is headed to the ballot.

Spokane County commissioners voted 3-0 on Tuesday to ask voters in a May special election to reauthorize a 0.1 percent sales tax scheduled to expire Jan. 31. The estimated $7 million a year the tax raises is mostly used to cover criminal justice spending.

If voters agree to continue the tax May 19, it would be the third measure in just over a year relying on sales tax revenue to support public safety.

In March 2008, voters reauthorized 0.1 percent for operations at Geiger Corrections Center, Spokane County Jail and juvenile detention. In May 2008, voters approved a new sales tax to be used for emergency communications and the revival of Crime Check.

The latest effort would extend the same tax that voters approved in 2004. All three taxes raise 1 cent for every $10 purchase in Spokane County.

In the new request, commissioners could have sought 0.3 percent, or 3 cents on every $10 purchase, but decided to keep it at the current rate, said Jim Emacio, chief deputy civil prosecuting attorney.

Some 60 percent of the revenues stay with the county and the remaining 40 percent is split by cities in Spokane County.

“I don’t know how they spent the money,” Emacio said, referring to the cities, “but in Spokane County, the entire amount has been spent for criminal justice or public safety.”

Unlike the 2004 ballot measure, the tax renewal would be for twice the duration, or 10 years. It’s expected to generate about $7 million a year.

Sheriff Ozzie Knezovich said he uses his office’s portion of the tax funds to pay for 17 positions in the jail and one detective. The tax revenues also pay for overtime and other expenses. “It’s roughly $5.5 million of our budget,” he said.

The sales tax revenue also pays for positions in Juvenile Court and 10 full-time positions at the Spokane County Prosecutor’s Office.

“We are in great support of this,” said Debbie Kurbitz, of the prosecutor’s office, adding that the office relies heavily on revenue from the tax.

Spokane Valley Mayor Rich Munson is among those supporting the ballot measure. He pointed out that his city has jumped from No. 137 to No. 84 in a national survey of safest cities.

“This tax is really important,” Munson said. “We all can use it in times of tax constraints and concerns.”

However, the county must spend $300,000 just to get the measure on the ballot. Commissioner Bonnie Mager asked if the county could use the tax revenue to offset that cost if it is successful.

“If voters approve it,” Emacio said, “the county can look to the funds to reimburse itself. Of course, if it doesn’t pass, the money would have to come out of the general fund.”

By putting the tax measure on the May ballot, the county is free to put it to the voters again in August or November. But that would cost the county another $300,000, not including efforts to promote the tax, Commissioner Mark Richard said.

That support must come from “a group of citizens who volunteer to support the ballot measure,” Richard said.

Reporter Thomas Clouse can be reached at (509) 459-5495 or by e-mail at tomc@spokesman.com.


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