Spokane County is one of many counties across our state facing a financial crisis. That crisis has jeopardized public safety for too long. It’s time for our legislators to give counties local control to fund basic safety needs before this situation gets worse.
Many people don’t know that counties are responsible for providing law enforcement, criminal justice, and public safety services for our communities. The cost to provide these services uses 75 percent of the county’s general fund, which is financed by property taxes.
However, for the last decade, counties have dealt with an annual 1 percent cap on increases in property tax revenue we can receive. Meanwhile, the cost of providing essential public safety services has outpaced revenue by 3 percent to 5 percent year over year – and that doesn’t add up. Today, we have a significant budget gap that has gotten so bad that we’re struggling to fund basic public safety services.
As the sheriff, I see the impact of those budget struggles every day. Nearly 10 years ago, we had to cut 34 deputy positions due to the recession. We have not been able to hire those positions back – a full decade later. Yet our population continues to rise, so we are serving more and more people with fewer dollars per person each year.
We all know that property crime is an issue. Our agency does the best it can with the resources we have. Unfortunately, with our limited number of investigators, we cannot investigate one-third of solvable felony property crimes.
For these reasons, I have joined many law enforcement leaders across the state to support the replacement of the 1 percent property tax cap with a formula that accounts for inflation and population growth. That would put local control back to our county management, so we can fund the important county services that keep us safe. These local funding decisions shouldn’t be made by politicians in Olympia. They should be made in our counties, where we have a full understanding of our local needs.
To rub salt in the wound, the state Senate’s proposed budget not only ignores the funding fix for local government, but it implements a new state property tax levy for education that is exempt from the 1 percent limit imposed on cities and counties.
In addition, the Senate’s budget proposal actually pushes unfunded mandates on county government that will further impact our ability to provide essential public safety services. The Senate saves billions of dollars for the state by shifting the financial burden to counties, without any local control to pay for it.
In closing, we need our legislators to replace the 1 percent property revenue cap in their final budget. Anything less is putting the public safety of millions of Washington residents at risk. As our legislators go back to the drawing board to work through the budget, they must consider the systemic issue and allow counties to have local control.
Ozzie Knezovich is the sheriff of Spokane County.