Spokane County voters likely will decide this year if a sales tax that pays for juvenile detention services should be maintained.
But county commissioners disagree when to put the one-tenth-of-a-cent sales tax measure on the ballot.
At a meeting on Tuesday, County Commissioner Al French fought a proposal to place it on the April 28 ballot in a move that surprised other county officials. The April special election is when voters in Spokane, Spokane Valley, Airway Heights, Cheney, Medical Lake, Millwood and Liberty Lake also will consider a three-tenths-of-a-cent sales tax increase to fund public transportation services.
The commission delayed action until next week.
Attempts made to reach French on Tuesday were unsuccessful.
County Commissioner Todd Mielke said he favors placing the tax on the April ballot.
“It would be a huge disruption if that tax lapsed even on a temporary basis,” said Mielke, who missed Tuesday’s meeting because he was attending a National Association of Counties conference in Washington D.C.
Commissioners have three dates they can choose for the vote: April 28, Aug. 4 or Nov. 3
If commissioners place the tax on the April ballot and voters reject it, the commission could try again on the August or November ballots. If the tax is rejected in August it would be too late to put it on the November ballot and the tax would expire at the end of the year.
“I’m a little nervous putting it on the August ballot because it would limit our options,” said County Commissioner Shelly O’Quinn.
The juvenile detention sales tax has been approved by Spokane County voters four times since 1995, when the state Legislature authorized counties to seek public sales tax dollars for the exclusive purpose of funding juvenile jails.
French, an STA board member, is a proponent of the STA sales tax proposal. O’Quinn, also a board member, opposed the tax plan when the transit agency decided in December to place its tax increase on the April ballot.
Mielke, who also opposes the STA tax, and O’Quinn said the county should not delay a vote on the juvenile justice tax as a result of other proposals, like STA’s, that might appear on the April 28 ballot.
“I want to make sure we’re looking out for the best interest of the county,” O’Quinn said.
Shoppers in unincorporated parts of the county pay an 8.1 percent sales tax on goods and services, among the lowest rates in the state. Inside the city limits of Spokane, Spokane Valley and other area municipalities, that sales tax rate jumps to 8.7 percent.
In comparison, the sales tax rate is 9.5 percent in Seattle, Tacoma, parts of Snohomish County and elsewhere. In Colville, Ritzville and Pullman, consumers pay 7.6 percent, 7.7 percent and 7.8 percent, respectively.
The juvenile detention sales tax brings in an estimated $8 million annually, according to Marshall Farnell, the county’s chief executive officer. It pays for two juvenile probation counselors, five juvenile corrections officers, and repairs and operations costs at the juvenile jail. While the money doesn’t make up the entirety of the department’s budget, Farnell said it’s key to their operations after being approved by voters so many times.
“If we didn’t have that money, I don’t know what we’d do,” he said.
County commissioners have routinely passed formal resolutions endorsing the tax.
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