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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Spokane County could spend $200k on voter education for jail, public safety ballot measure

Spokane County may set aside $200,000 for an informational campaign in the run-up to the November election. County voters will decide on Nov. 7 if they want to tax themselves more than $1 billion over 30 years to pay for a new jail and various investments toward public safety, criminal justice and behavioral health.  (Jesse Tinsley/The Spokesman-Review)

Spokane County could spend $200,000 on an ad campaign to help voters decide whether they want to tax themselves for a new jail and other investments.

If voters in November approve the 0.2% sales tax, local governments will collect more than $1 billion over 30 years.

Jared Webley, the county’s communications director, explained to commissioners Tuesday that the goal would be to increase turnout and give voters accurate, unbiased information in advance of the election. State law prohibits the county from encouraging people to vote one way or the other on the ballot measure.

“It will not be a sexy campaign,” Webley told the commissioners. “It will be fact-based.”

The $200,000 educational campaign would primarily pay for advertising, services from a public relations firm and printing.

Not all Spokane County commissioners think the information campaign is a great idea.

Democrat Amber Waldref, who campaigned against building a new jail, said she doesn’t want to commit $200,000 until it’s clear exactly what the 0.2% sales tax will pay for. She said voters should “know what they’re voting on,” and pointed out that the cost and bed counts of the new facilities aren’t yet known.

“I’m not personally going to support anything until we have the information determined as to where the tax dollars would go,” she said.

Spokane County would net 60% of the revenues from the tax, and 40% would go to other jurisdictions. Washington law would require governments to put the dollars toward criminal justice, public safety and behavioral health.

Spokane County would use the money to pay for a new jail and community corrections center, which would house low-level offenders and likely offer classes and counseling resources to inmates. The buildings would be next to the current jail, which would remain open.

Waldref also stressed that she believes the county should invest more in public safety efforts “upstream” of the jail. There are other ways to make the community safer besides expanding detention capacity, she said.

Chris Jordan, Waldref’s fellow Democrat on the commission, said spending money on an information campaign is premature until the county knows more precisely how it would spend its tax dollars.

“I just think we’re putting the cart before the horse right now,” he said.

Republicans on the county commission were more supportive of the idea.

Commissioner Josh Kerns said he thinks it’s a “great plan” and disagreed with Waldref that the sales tax proposal lacks sufficient detail.

Kerns emphasized that the county has been discussing building a new jail for more than a decade. Even if bed counts and final facility costs aren’t yet known, he said, voters still have lots of information about the concept and know that the current jail is dangerously overcrowded.

“We decided to put it on a ballot now because we’ve been kicking this can down the road for God knows how long,” he said. “It should have been on a ballot 10 years ago, 15 years ago.”

Commissioner Al French agreed. He said the county shouldn’t be afraid of an informational campaign and leaving the jail question to voters.

“I don’t know why we’re afraid of letting the public decide,” French said. “It’s their money; it’s their decision; it’s their safety on the line. It’s about being able to lock up people that will do them harm that’s on the line.”

The county commission is expected to vote on the educational campaign Tuesday.