Benton commissioners back criminal justice tax

By Sara Schilling, Tri-City HeraldAugust 6, 2013 

A sales tax increase to help with criminal justice needs such as a mental health court could be on the ballot in Benton County as early as next summer.

County commissioners on Tuesday indicated they support the idea of sending a measure to voters. They asked staff to prepare a resolution that would set the process in motion, coming back to them for consideration at a future meeting.

Many details still have to be worked out, including the amount of the proposed sales tax increase.

"I support going to citizens," said Commissioner Shon Small, chairman of the board. "I want to make sure we have a fine-tuned product that's complete."

Benton County voters twice before have weighed in on a criminal justice sales tax -- a 0.2 percent increase was on the ballot in 2007 and 2008, failing both times.

Franklin County voters approved a 0.3 percent criminal justice sales tax in 2011.

Commissioners on Tuesday heard from the citizens advisory committee that's been studying the issue since last fall. The group was convened by the county's Law & Justice Council, with approval from the commissioners.

The committee is recommending a 0.3 percent criminal justice sales tax. Richard Nordgren, committee chairman, said crime has been dropping overall throughout the county since the mid-90s, while the population has grown.

However, the number of officers per 1,000 residents has been declining in some jurisdictions, and it's been difficult for elected officials to raise money to add more, he said.

He also said crimes are becoming more complicated, noting the rise of cybercrime as an example.

And the cost of doing business is increasing.

"I'll give you one example, which we heard about repeatedly across the spectrum: the cost of medical services has risen at a faster rate than the ability to raise revenue, or taxes, to pay for them. That shows up in increased premium rates for employee benefits; it also shows up in costs of providing medical service to inmates at the county jail," Nordgren said.

He also said unfunded mandates take a toll.

A 0.3 percent sales tax increase could bring in an estimated $9 million to $9.6 million a year, according to the committee's report. Benton County would get 60 percent, with the rest going to the cities within it based on population.

A 0.2 percent increase could generate an estimated $6 million to $6.4 million annually and a 0.1 percent increase could generate $3 million to $3.2 million, the report said.

It includes some recommendations for how to spend the money, including establishing a mental health court within District Court. The committee didn't recommend any sales tax money for the Clerk's Office, Prosecuting Attorney's Office or Office of Public Defense, and commissioners questioned that.

County Prosecutor Andy Miller and Eric Hsu, indigent defense coordinator, both told commissioners they would hope to see criminal justice officials in the county meet to discuss needs systemwide as the process moves forward.

Also Tuesday:

-- Commissioners heard an annual report from Washington Counties Risk Pool, which is the county's insurance pool. Officials from the pool presented the county with an award for being the top performer over 25 years; it has a low number of claims and costs associated with claims.

-- Sara Schilling: 582-1529; sschilling@tricityherald.com; Twitter: @saraTCHerald

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