Spokane County Sheriff Ozzie Knezovich said Tuesday that the ability of his office to fight crime is increasingly endangered by funding cuts, and he is proposing a new sales tax to help shore up its budget.
He is asking the county commissioners to place a sales tax increase of two-tenths of a cent on the November ballot and restrict the money raised to law enforcement and criminal justice.
Commissioners told the sheriff they wanted more information to analyze the issue before making a decision on whether to go to voters. Knezovich said he needs a decision soon so that he can begin getting voters up to speed on the issue.
“The longer we wait, the harder it is to get the information out,” the sheriff told commissioners.
Knezovich said his department entered the year with about $1.4 million less than it needed to maintain current operations, and the department is facing a $660,000 shortfall as of July 1.
At the same time, the number of commissioned deputies has fallen from a high of 247 in 2008 to 213 currently. Six retiring deputies are not being replaced this year, he said.
In addition, six more deputies may face layoff as early as July, although those job losses are likely to be pushed back until the start of 2013 under current funding, the sheriff said.
The state allows counties to levy a sales tax of up to three-tenths of a cent for public safety. Spokane voters previously approved a one-tenth-cent tax, good through 2020.
Each tenth of a cent raises $7 million countywide and must be shared on a formula that gives 60 percent to the county and 40 percent to cities.
A full two-tenths would yield an estimated $14 million a year, and could be used to help cities close budget shortfalls.
The city of Spokane is projecting a $10 million shortfall for 2013, including funding for police.
Knezovich is recommending that the tax, if approved by voters, expire after 10 years unless it is reauthorized at the polls. Economic recovery may allow the tax to be withdrawn by then, he said.
A budget presentation from the sheriff showed that projected staffing for 2013 under current finances would drop to 0.65 deputies per thousand residents, down from 1.06 deputies per thousand in 2008. The staffing rate is low compared with other counties in the state, he said.
Property crimes have risen at the same time, partly after the city of Spokane announced it was dropping property crime investigations in 2011.
Residential burglaries were up by 52 percent in the unincorporated areas of the county during the first three months of the year.
The sheriff has responded by targeting burglars, netting 132 arrests in the past two months. “Everyone knows we are arresting every burglar we can find,” Knezovich said. The burglary rate has started to fall as a result, he said.
The prospect of budget cuts may hamper the ability to target property crime, he said, pointing out that other counties in the state have dropped property crime investigations.