Citizens group to push criminal justice sales tax proposal

By Sara Schilling, Tri-City HeraldMarch 24, 2014 

A citizens committee has formed to promote the proposed sales tax for criminal justice needs that heads to Benton County voters this summer.

The measure will be on the Aug. 5 ballot.

If approved, the increase of three-tenths of 1 percent will add three pennies to a $10 purchase and raise an estimated $9.2 million annually. The money will pay for personnel and services ranging from more law enforcement officers to gang prevention and intervention efforts and a mental health court.

"It's important to know the members of our organization do not generally support tax increases. We take seriously the fact that your money is hard earned. We fiercely object when government spends taxpayer money wastefully," Ken Hohenberg, Kennewick's police chief and spokesman for Citizens for Safe Communities, said during a news conference Monday.

But the criminal justice measure is different, addressing the critical need of public safety, he said.

He also noted it's a sales tax, not a property tax, meaning "people making purchases while traveling through or visiting the county will help contribute to public safety," not just residents.

And the sales tax would expire after 10 years. "Voters can reassess if it's as necessary then as it is today. And it will help ensure proper accountability," Hohenberg said.

Along with Hohenberg, Benton County Clerk Josie Delvin and Prosecutor Andy Miller make up the Citizens for Safe Communities' steering committee.

Several business and community leaders have signed on as honorary co-chairmen, from Bill McCurley of McCurley Integrity Dealerships to Kris Watkins of the Tri-Cities Visitor and Convention Bureau.

Watkins said public safety is a key part of economic development. "A community gets a reputation, and we want to keep that reputation as a safe and sound community," she said. "For us, it's a very important initiative."

The committee has raised about $9,100 so far.

Some opposition has popped up. A citizens group, called Benton County Citizens for Efficient Criminal Justice and Law Enforcement, formed to campaign against the measure.

Chairman Robert Sparks of Kennewick said public safety is a legitimate need but his group feels the measure is asking for too much money. "We're asking them to keep it reasonable. Cover what you need and that's it," Sparks said. "We're getting hit hard enough."

The Tri-Cities Tea Party, which generally opposes tax increases, hasn't taken a formal position on the proposal but isn't planning to actively campaign against it, Jerry Martin, the group's past president, said Monday.

If the sales tax measure passes, the revenue will 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 their population.

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

A portion of Benton County's share would be dedicated to a new mental health court program.

The county also would add staff across its criminal justice-related departments and set aside money for the drug court program and the Tri-City Metro Drug Task Force, both of which have faced funding struggles.

The county also would dedicate money to gang and crime intervention efforts, including partnerships with the Boys and Girls Clubs of Benton and Franklin Counties and My Friends Place, the area's youth homeless shelter.

For more information on Citizens for Safe Communities, go to www.citizens4safecommunities.com.

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

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