Sales tax increase considered for ballot
A new Spokane County jail may require two public votes: one for bonds to build it and another for a sales tax increase to operate it.
“I think we have to be honest with the community,” County Commissioner Bonnie Mager said Tuesday. “I think people need to understand that we are going to have to pay for that (increased operating cost).”
Mager referred to programs necessary to reduce the number of beds in the proposed minimum- to medium-security replacement for the Geiger Corrections Center.
Many inmates would be steered into supervised work and treatment programs instead of jail under a planned community corrections system.
However, a budget crisis prompted county officials to shut down a pilot program last fall. They hope a dedicated source of revenue would prevent that from happening again if a new jail and community corrections center is built.
Mager “reluctantly” voted for a $62,000 public relations contract Tuesday. She objected that Gallatin Public Affairs won’t be able to tell the public about the possible tax increase because commissioners haven’t worked out the details.
Sheriff’s Lt. Mike Sparber, the jail project manager, said the problem is that county officials don’t know how many inmates might be enrolled in the community corrections program.
Sparber is waiting for a report on new ways of screening offenders to allow low-risk felons into the program as well as people who commit misdemeanors.
Sparber said county officials might be able to pay for the community corrections program with available revenue, but agreed with Mager that such a possibility is “very optimistic.”
At present, Mager said, the county’s only option for more revenue is a sales tax increase of up to two-tenths of a percent.
“Are we going to put that on the ballot at the same time as the bond measure?” she asked.
Maybe the tax increase should be placed on the November general election ballot, Mager suggested. If operating revenue was approved in November, voters could approve a construction bond in April with confidence that the jail could be used as planned.
Commissioner Mark Richard said the danger of that approach is that voters would reject the bond measure on grounds that they had already voted on jail funding. Or that they would reject the community corrections funding, saying, “I don’t want that part, anyway.”
Richard said he is firmly committed to the community corrections plan, and won’t “bail” in favor of “bricks-and-mortar” alone.
“Most of my public career is invested in this project,” he said.
Richard said the county can’t afford to wait for public relations assistance because “it’s going to take us more than a year to communicate this message effectively.”
Gallatin Public Affairs will help county officials craft their message before mounting a public information campaign, Richard said.
Meanwhile, he said, “We are letting other people define the message.”
Commissioner Todd Mielke noted that 40 percent of the possible sales tax increase would go to cities in the county. He said he wants an agreement that all of the money would be used for the regional “felony criminal justice system” before putting the tax increase before voters.
Cities may handle misdemeanors, but only the county government can deal with felonies.
Mielke said the county will be better able to determine the cost of a community corrections program after the city of Spokane decides whether to set up its own program for misdemeanor offenders.
David Bennett, the county’s criminal justice consultant, said he concluded after a recent meeting with city officials that they are philosophically “on the same page” as county officials regarding community corrections.
Mielke said he was “a bit confused,” though, because the city announced earlier Tuesday that it won’t continue to participate in the county’s Mental Health Court.
The city currently pays for three half-time positions but won’t do so next year, according to Spokane Municipal Court Administrator Cindy Marshall.
Her announcement came a week after Spokane Mayor Mary Verner proposed setting up a committee to study possibilities for city-county cooperation on a new jail and programs for dealing with misdemeanor offenders.
Verner called for the committee to be formed Friday and to make its recommendations within 60 days. It would include representatives from the county and cities with more than 15,000 residents.
Mager said she is “confident” the Gallatin contract, originally intended for a November bond measure, will have to be extended up to four months at the agreed $10,000 a month.
Mager said she will vote against the extension if commissioners still don’t have a plan to pay for the community corrections program.
“If we don’t, we probably shouldn’t have this on the April ballot,” Richard said.
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