After losing a close vote to fund Crime Check, county leaders are considering whether they should try again.
County and city leaders have said that reviving the 24-7 crime reporting system, which closed at the end of 2004 because of budget cuts, was a priority almost from the day it went offline.
A November vote that would have raised $7.5 million or more a year in sales taxes for Crime Check and to update emergency communications equipment failed by fewer than 300 votes.
County commissioners allocated money to restore the service in the 2008 budget, but this week the Spokane City Council said it didn’t have the money to do the same. Spokane Valley’s 2008 budget also has no money for Crime Check.
The cost to bring back Crime Check countywide is $1.3 million, an amount that would be split among the county and cities within the county, based on population.
“We don’t have the money right now, tonight, to do it,” Spokane City Council President Joe Shogan said at Monday’s budget hearing. “It’s just out of the question.”
That creates a dilemma for county leaders: go it alone and force city residents to use the existing inferior system, or ask voters again for a sales tax increase. If they decide to try again, commissioners also have to decide whether they want to write in a sunset clause. The ballot issue that failed did not have an expiration date.
“I think all of us are trying to do some soul searching,” said County Commissioner Mark Richard.
Sheriff Ozzie Knezovich said the vote doesn’t change the need for a system that encourages more people to report crime. Nor does it change a 2012 Federal Communications Commission deadline for local emergency service providers to convert to narrow-band radio technology to free up channels for other uses.
“That is a reality that is going to happen,” Knezovich said. “That is a ‘have to’ in order to survive.”
Knezovich said the cheapest fix would cost about $14 million. That, he said, would create a system that would have about same functionality that exists now. Fixes that would create a “21st century” system would cost closer to $40 million, he said.
A group of county and city leaders will meet today to discuss the next step. Richard said he is not willing to put the issue on the ballot again unless city leaders, including police and fire officials, take a strong stand to support it.
Spokane City Administrator Ted Danek said Mayor Mary Verner is willing to publicly advocate for the sales tax.
“The mayor is strongly in favor of Crime Check, especially if we bring it back to voters,” he said.
Former County Commissioner Kate McCaslin, who opposed the November ballot issue, said there’s an alternative to a new tax – especially with recent windfalls from increased sales taxes. The city of Spokane alone had an $11 million surplus at the end of 2006. After locking some away in a rainy day fund and buying a heating and air conditioning system for City Hall and other items, most of that has been spent.
“They have the money,” McCaslin said. “They just need to make it a priority.”
Knezovich said criminal justice budgets have been “scoured” and that using existing revenue for Crime Check or communications equipment would mean cuts to important services elsewhere.
Spokane City Councilman Al French said a sales tax disproportionately affects the poor. The city could consider funding Crime Check through other means, such as through property taxes, he said.
“Instead of having a thoughtful conversation about what we wanted to do, we defaulted to what the county wanted to do,” French said. “We need to get busy finding a solution for us.”
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