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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Spokane County voters shot down a sales tax that would have paid for a new jail. What happens now?

A cell in the Spokane County Jail is nearly empty Aug. 15, except for a mattress and a book.  (Colin Tiernan/The Spokesman-Review)

The sales tax proposal that would have raised $1.7 billion for public safety and paid for two new jails failed in dramatic fashion Tuesday.

More than 60% of Spokane County voters shot it down. Conservative voters in the county’s reddest areas didn’t like it; liberal voters in Spokane’s bluest neighborhoods didn’t like it either.

Law enforcement officials say the region still needs to invest heavily in public safety, however. The Spokane County Jail remains overcrowded. Geiger Corrections Center, the county’s lower-security jail on the West Plains, continues to fall apart.

So if the need to invest in Spokane County’s criminal justice system hasn’t gone away, what happens now?

Some sort of new public safety funding proposal will likely emerge in the coming weeks or months. People on both sides of the Measure 1 debate agree the second attempt will need to avoid several pitfalls.

Many politicians across the political spectrum said Measure 1 was insufficiently detailed, although Republican Spokane County commissioners Josh Kerns and Al French – who put Measure 1 on the general election ballot – disagreed.

Voters knew the tax dollars – which would have been raised through a 0.2% sales tax – would go toward criminal justice, public safety and behavioral health projects. They also knew roughly $540 million would pay for jails. But they didn’t know precisely how local governments would spend the remaining $1.1 billion.

Criminal justice reform advocates and liberal politicians repeatedly called Measure 1 a “blank check.”

Spokane Valley City Councilman Rod Higgins, a staunch conservative, said he opposed Measure 1 because it was short on specifics.

“The details were awfully fuzzy,” Higgins said.

Conservatives and liberals also agree the county needs to solicit more feedback from the public before putting forward another tax request.

Spokane City Councilman Michael Cathcart, a conservative who supported Measure 1, said he wants to know exactly why the public disliked the sales tax proposal. He said there’s no point in trying another tax request until it’s clear why Measure 1 failed so badly.

“It’s just going to fail again if we don’t understand what the concerns are,” he said.

Cathcart said he expects some voters simply didn’t want to pay a new tax. Others are opposed to a new jail on philosophical grounds, he said.

“What I heard over and over was, ‘We don’t want a new jail at all,’ ” he said.

Spokane NAACP President Kurtis Robinson, who also serves as executive director of I Did the Time, said he believes the county commission has done a poor job of soliciting community input.

“They invite us to the table and then don’t act on the information we give them,” he said.

Future iterations of Measure 1 may need bipartisan support to succeed, and putting together a package that appeals to conservatives and liberals won’t be easy.

Law enforcement officials, reform advocates and politicians, regardless of their political leanings, generally agree that Spokane County needs to invest heavily in mental health and addiction services. Measure 1 revenues could have paid for behavioral health services, but the county commission never promised to dedicate funds toward a specific project.

While people on the left and right agree the region needs to expand its behavioral health resources, they have different public safety priorities.

Higgins said conservatives want more jail beds. Measure 1’s primary selling point, he said, was the fact that it promised to expand jail capacity and keep dangerous people off the streets.

Paul Dillon, a newly elected Spokane City Council member, said he supports replacing Geiger Corrections Center but doesn’t “foresee a justification behind needing additional jail beds.”

Dillon said he believes Spokane County should prioritize helping addicts and people struggling with mental health problems, not expanding jail capacity.

Spokane County Commissioner Amber Waldref said she’s unsure if she’d support the addition of new jail beds. The county needs to place a greater emphasis on alternatives to incarceration, she said.

“We’d have to look at what we can do to keep the community safe but also reduce the number of people who are in the beds for long periods of time,” she said.

Passing a tax to pay for a new jail isn’t impossible. Stevens County voters on Tuesday approved two separate sales taxes, which will help pay for a new $90 million jail.

New taxes aren’t the only option, either. County officials will likely consider a handful of different ways to come up with public safety funding.

Spokane County Sheriff John Nowels, who has repeatedly stressed the dire need for a new jail, said the state Legislature should pay part of the bill. He pointed out that the county built its current jail in the 1980s with state funding.

The Legislature might not have a strong appetite for jail funding today, though.

State Rep. Timm Ormsby, a Spokane Democrat who chairs the House appropriations committee, said it’s unlikely the Legislature chips in for a new Spokane County jail. The state is more likely to contribute to programs that reduce the need for incarceration, he said, “not so much the bricks and mortar.”

Figuring out how to pay for Spokane County’s public safety needs will be difficult, but Higgins said he’s confident common ground exists between those on either side of the jail debate.

“We’re all interested in public safety,” he said. “Nobody wants to get mugged on the street.”