Criminal justice sales tax will head to Benton County voters

Tri-City HeraldMarch 4, 2014 

Benton County voters will decide this summer on a three-tenths of one percent sales tax for criminal justice needs.

County commissioners agreed to send the proposal to the August ballot during Tuesday's meeting in Prosser.

If approved, the measure will add three pennies to a $10 purchase, bringing in an estimated $9.2 million annually. It would pay for personnel and programs ranging from more police officers and deputies to additional court staff, gang and crime programs and a mental health court.

The tax would end in 10 years.

"All of the other things that we talk about -- whether it's tourism, whether it's schools -- cannot be possible to the degree we need them to be unless we have a safe place to live," said Commissioner Jim Beaver.

Beaver and Commissioner Shon Small voted to send the measure to voters. Commissioner Jerome Delvin was absent because of a conference, but Beaver said Delvin indicated he also is supportive.

Law enforcement officials who attended Tuesday's meeting said the cost of doing business is rising while their work is growing more complex.

Kennewick Police Chief Ken Hohenberg noted his department has seen a net gain of one officer in 10 years, while Kennewick's population has grown by more than 19,000 people.

"People realize that we've been very effective with the resources we've had. But you can only stretch the rubber band so far," he said.

Benton County Sheriff Steve Keane said his staff is stretched as far as it can possibly be stretched with the resources that it has.

"I think we're all in agreement here that this issue needs to be taken before the voters," he said.

The revenue from the sales tax increase would be divided among Benton County and its cities, with the county getting 60 percent, and Kennewick, Richland, West Richland and Prosser splitting the rest based on population. A portion of Benton County's share would be dedicated to a new mental health court program, as detailed in a front page story in Sunday's Herald.

The county also would add personnel across its criminal justice-related departments -- from the sheriff's, clerk's, prosecutor's, public defense and coroner's offices, to District and Superior courts -- and set aside money for drug court and the Metro Drug Task Force. Gang and crime intervention/prevention efforts also would get a share of the county's portion, including partnerships with the Boys and Girls Clubs of Benton and Franklin Counties and My Friends Place teen shelter.

The four cities plan to use their shares largely to add more police officers and support staff.

A citizens advisory committee spent months studying criminal justice needs in the county and recommended a three-tenths of 1 percent sales tax increase.

"It's gratifying to see that commissioners concurred with us and now it's up to voters," Richard Nordgren, who served as chairman, told the Herald.

One fellow committee member, Jerry Martin, told commissioners that he feels it's unlikely the measure will pass and a backup plan is needed to maintain operations. He proposed performance audits of county offices to identify waste, inefficiencies and fraud.

Martin also said the citizens committee's recommendation wasn't based on data analysis and was unduly influenced by the county's Law and Justice Council, which is comprised of criminal justice officials. Nordgren said the recommendation reflected the collective opinion of the advisory committee.

Martin, past president of the Tri-Cities Tea Party, said the group will campaign against the criminal justice sales tax proposal.

"The people will favor our message. They will not favor a higher-taxes message," he said.

Some others in the community are lining up to support the measure.

"We know that to keep businesses thriving in this area, it is necessary to suppress crime and the criminal gangs that threaten our well-being," wrote Bill Lampson, Bill McCurley, Craig Eerkes and Kris Watkins in a letter to commissioners. "Something that we are particularly impressed with is that this will fund gang prevention efforts and help keep our youth out of criminal gangs."

The local business leaders have signed on as honorary co-chairs of a citizens campaign committee.

Benton County voters twice before have weighed in on a criminal justice sales tax. A two-tenths of 1 percent request was on the ballot in 2007 and 2008, failing both times.

Franklin County has a three-tenths of 1 percent measure in place. It was approved in 2011.

-- Sara Schilling: 582-1529;; Twitter: @saraTCHerald

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