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Spokane County asks voters to renew sales tax to maintain criminal justice system

UPDATED: Tue., July 23, 2019

An employee of the Philadelphia Macaroni Company, the site of a recent coronavirus outbreak, was arrested twice on suspicion of driving under the influence in a one-week span. His cellmate at the Spokane County Jail and six police officers were quarantined as a result. (Jesse Tinsley / The Spokesman-Review)
An employee of the Philadelphia Macaroni Company, the site of a recent coronavirus outbreak, was arrested twice on suspicion of driving under the influence in a one-week span. His cellmate at the Spokane County Jail and six police officers were quarantined as a result. (Jesse Tinsley / The Spokesman-Review)

Spokane County leaders are asking voters to renew a $6 million-a-year sales tax that the region has approved twice before.

Spokane County Commissioner Mary Kuney said Spokane County would be able to keep 60% of the funds generated from the sales and use tax, while the rest would go to cities in the county.

She said the money would be spread across the criminal justice system, which includes the Sheriff’s Department, courts, jail and public safety initiatives. County leaders are asking for a one-tenth of 1% sales-and-use tax.

Voters have approved one-tenth of 1% twice before, with almost 52% voting in favor when the measure was first on the ballot in 2004 and nearly 62% voting yes when it was on the ballot a second time in 2009. When the sales tax was first adopted, it generated about $2 million in revenue, according to the proposal that commissioners approved.

If voters approve the tax extension, it would be in effect from April 2020 to December 2029.

The Spokane County public safety budget is more than $170 million, and Spokane County’s entire budget is $790 million.

Tonya Wallace, chief budget officer for Spokane County, said public safety is the biggest expense the county has and that the money from the sales tax would mostly be used to pay for public safety personnel. She said it’s difficult to pinpoint what specific programs and staff the tax pays for because the county has been collecting it for so many years and the money is spread across multiple agencies.

“These systems work all together, so even a decrease in one of those revenue sources will ripple across the entire system,” Wallace said.

Spokane County Sheriff Ozzie Knezovich said if voters approve the levy, it would just be “continuing the status quo” and they would be paying to keep the same amount of law enforcement and court services. If the renewal is voted down, Knezovich said he would probably have to lay off deputies.

“Any decrease will pretty much result in almost an immediate cut in services,” he said. “There’s no fat to these budgets.”

Spokane County voters who live in unincorporated areas and the city of Spokane already pay about 8.8% in sales tax. Nearly three-quarters of the money collected goes to the state and the rest goes toward juvenile and jail services, emergency communications, mental health services, public facilities, the Spokane Transit Authority, the city of Spokane and Spokane County.

Under state law, counties are allowed to ask for up to three-tenths of 1%, but Kuney said she wanted to wait until commissioners had made a decision on a new jail before asking for more. Once leaders decide on a jail or other new public safety programs, county leaders may ask for the maximum amount allowed under state law.

“There’s a lot of stuff we’re doing in our criminal justice system, and we want to save that capacity for when we know what we want to do with a new jail,” Kuney said. “At this point in time we just want to do a renewal.”

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