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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Spokane County’s plans for 30-year-old tax renewal request may be complicated by Mayor Brown’s proposal

The Spokane County Courthouse is seen in this August 2020 photo.  (DAN PELLE/The Spokesman-Review)

Spokane County commissioners will ask voters to renew a tax to pay for detention services for minors, but Spokane Mayor Lisa Brown’s Monday announcement of her proposal to increase the sales tax within city limits could affect when they decide to do it.

The Spokane County Board of Commissioners met Monday for a routine strategic planning meeting, in which they discussed the best way to go about bringing county facilities up to new energy standards, potential grant opportunities to help combat lead hazards in old homes and economic trends in the county.

The majority of the meeting, however, centered around the need to renew a nearly 30-year-old sales tax that helps fund countywide juvenile detention facilities and services.

The 0.1% sales tax, referred to as the Spokane County Juvenile Detention Facility & Jails Sales Tax, allocates funding for the “operating, maintaining, remodeling, repairing, re-equipping, and improvement of juvenile detention facilities and jails,” as the measure states. The county collected $15.8 million in revenue from the tax last year.

The tax was first approved by voters in 1995 and was renewed with overwhelming support in 1998, 2003, 2008 and 2015. Nearly 70% of voters approved the most recent renewal set to expire at the end of next year.

After much deliberation over the language of the measure, how long it should last, when it should go before voters and the potential challenges that could arise, the board decided to hold a vote next Tuesday on placing the measure on the November ballot .

Brown announced her “Community Safety Sales Tax” would go before Spokane voters roughly a half-hour after the county commissioners decided they were ready to move forward.

That could present a challenge to the viability of both measures. The two could be seen as competing efforts, present a heavier lift for voters minding their cents and dollars and make it harder for those governments to communicate and have the voters understand how the funds from each will be used.

Both might also be lost in the fray of what will be a long and varied ballot this fall, with the presidential election top of mind for most.

County Commissioner Chris Jordan said he doesn’t believe both landing on the ballot will have much of an effect on the outcome of the county’s renewal request. There are often multiple measures on the same ballot, and voters are smart enough to understand the differences between the two, he said.

“I think the voters can understand that, at least when it comes to our juvenile justice tax, it’s a renewal, and not a new tax or an increase,” Jordan said in an interview. “We’re basically asking for a continuation of the good work that’s already been done with these dollars.”

Commissioner Al French expressed some concerns during the meeting about running the measure in November due to the short timeline for sharing information with voters and the expected opposition to new and old taxes in November.

“We all know what campaigning in August looks like; I mean, everybody is at the lake,” French said. “So, I mean, you really got September, October, and ballots are out in the middle of October, so you’re talking about a month and a half of effective time with the voter to communicate a message.”

French said a lot of money will be poured into this election to encourage voters to say no to any new taxes, or to remove existing ones. Voters will decide whether to repeal the state’s capital gains tax, to make a long-term care program and associated tax optional and to repeal the cap-and-trade program often blamed for high gas prices.

French worries the county’s renewal could be swept up in those efforts and fail as a result.

“There’s going to be a lot of anti-tax people showing up,” French said. “And that’s concerning.”

Commission Chair Mary Kuney, who supports running the measure in November, said the November election is the most cost-effective time to place the request in front of the voters, and allows for future attempts if the measure does fail.

If the commissioners decide to put the measure on the fall ballot and it fails, they can run it during a special election, but it will be at a higher cost. Taxing districts and local jurisdictions, such as counties, cities, school boards or fire districts, share the costs of holding an election when they have a measure on the ballot.

The county would likely need to shoulder most of the burden during a special election and could risk running up against a slate of local school bonds that failed in February.

“If it fails for some reason, then we’ve got the time to get it back,” Kuney said. “Because that’s a huge hit to our budget.”

Both Kuney and Commissioner Amber Waldref noted there is never an easy time to ask voters to approve a tax measure.

Waldref added that she believes the November ballot would be the safest option, and that there is a critical need for the juvenile justice system, which serves the entire county and all incorporated towns and cities within.

Kerns said he believes the measure would still have a good chance at passing in November, even though he shares French’s concerns regarding timing and the chance the measure gets swept up in the general expense-cutting and tax opposition expected ahead of Election Day.

“I have questions on whether it can pass, but I still think it probably will,” Kerns said. “Because it is a renewal, what it’s for, it’s not really controversial. It shouldn’t be. I mean, there may be some people who try to make it controversial, but it really shouldn’t.”

Jordan said the funding helps support critical facilities and services aimed at preventing children from perpetually cycling in and out of the criminal justice system well into adulthood.

The services the department offers include training in the trades, GED programs, mental health and addiction treatment, and a litany of other programs and services to help rehabilitate minor offenders.

“The juvenile piece of this is really about kids, right?” Jordan said. “And it’s about helping detained youth make positive changes in their lives early on, so they don’t become justice-involved later on as adults. The goal with a significant piece of this project is about helping youth lead safe, stable, productive lives as adults.”

The commissioners will vote on whether they’ll place the sales tax renewal on the ballot this November during their 2 p.m. meeting next Tuesday.