Spokane County is spending up to $200,000 to help voters decide if they want to pay $1.7 billion in additional taxes for a new jail and other undefined public safety improvements.
Following a 3-2 party-line vote Tuesday, the Spokane County Commission hired the advertising agency 116 & West to lead an informational campaign in the run-up to the general election.
The advertising agency will work to educate the public about a 0.2% sales tax measure set to appear on the November ballot. If voters approve it, the tax would bring in an estimated $1.7 billion over 30 years to pay for two new detention facilities and fund various public safety, criminal justice and behavioral health projects.
Democratic commissioners Chris Jordan and Amber Waldref voted against awarding the $200,000 contract. Both said the county should have a detailed plan for spending the sales tax revenue before putting the question to voters.
“I have not received meaningful specificity at this point as to what the plan is,” Jordan said. “We’re out of order on how this should be moving forward.”
It’s unclear how much specificity voters will have before they fill out their ballots.
Per state law, Spokane County would receive 60% of the funds. Jordan said staff have estimated the county alone would get more than $1 billion over the three decades.
The remaining 40% of the sales tax money would be distributed between Spokane, Spokane Valley and other cities based on their populations.
It isn’t yet known how cities would spend their pieces of the sales tax pie, but Spokane County would use a significant percentage of its share to pay for two new detention facilities.
One of those facilities would be a new jail, likely located directly behind the current one. The other would be a community corrections center, also on the county campus, which would hold lower level offenders and offer them educational and behavioral health resources.
The current jail would remain open, but adding two new buildings would allow the county to halve its population and close Geiger Corrections Center in Airway Heights.
Jordan and Waldref said they believe the county should have a far more thorough plan before asking voters for a $1.7 billion tax.
“We need to have meaningful community input shaping what that proposal is and a meaningful plan to present to voters,” Jordan said.
Republican Commissioner Josh Kerns said it was “disingenuous” for Waldref and Jordan to argue the plan lacks sufficient detail.
He has previously said that, while the final cost and capacity of the new jail aren’t yet known, voters understand the general concept and know the current facility is dangerously overcrowded.
“There’s a lot of information that’s been shared,” Kerns said. “I look forward to this informational effort moving forward, and it sounds like some of my fellow commissioners are going to benefit from this educational effort.”