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

Spokane County voters overwhelmingly reject sales tax that would have paid for new jails

Spokane County voters aren’t willing to pay more in sales taxes to pay for new jails – at least not now.

As of Tuesday night, 63% of voters said they don’t want a new 0.2% sales tax that would fund the construction of two jails and other undefined public safety programs.

If voters had approved it, Measure 1 would have brought in an estimated $1.7 billion over the next 30 years. Per state law, all of that money would have gone toward public safety, criminal justice and behavioral health projects.

Spokane County would have gotten 60% of the revenue, and the remaining 40% would have gone to cities and towns on a per capita basis. County officials said they would use about $540 million to build two new jails, but it was unclear how the other $1.1 billion would have been spent.

While the money wouldn’t have exclusively gone toward building jails, Spokane County commissioners always said the sales tax was primarily needed to increase jail capacity.

Spokane County’s jail, built in the late 1980s, was designed to hold 462 people. The facility has been overcrowded and plagued by deaths and suicides for years, however.

While stakeholders on both ends of the political spectrum agree the jail is overcrowded and dangerous, they disagree about how Spokane County should fix the problem.

Many conservatives have said the county’s first priority should be expanding jail capacity, so law enforcement can keep more dangerous people off the streets.

Many liberals have argued the county could better improve public safety by helping defendants find stable housing, employment and treatment for addiction or mental health issues.

Spokane County Commissioner Chris Jordan, who opposed Measure 1, said the election results prove that voters were unwilling to support a tax without knowing precisely what it would fund.

“Voters care about the details,” he said.

Jordan said that in order to successfully pass a ballot measure for public safety funding, elected officials will need to present a proposal informed by significant public feedback.

”It’ll take a lot of, really, trust building, and a lot of good planning,” he said. “We’ve got to really regroup as a county and figure out where to go from here.”

Spokane County Sheriff John Nowels, who supported Measure 1, said elected officials need to work together to address public safety challenges.

Major investments in public safety are still needed with or without a new sales tax, Nowels said. Until the county finds a new revenue source, he said, the criminal justice system will continue to be underfunded.

“We’re still going to be forced to make decisions that aren’t necessarily in the best interest of public safety,” he said. “We cannot continue the status quo here in Spokane County.”