A proposed sales tax on the ballot in August in Benton County would strengthen public safety and help preserve quality of life countywide, the county's top law enforcement officials said Tuesday.
Sheriff Steve Keane and the police chiefs from Kennewick, Richland, West Richland and Prosser discussed the benefits of the three-tenths of 1 percent sales tax during a lunchtime news conference, signing a statement indicating their support.
Their agencies have dealt with growing populations and increasingly complex and time-consuming cases, but staffing levels haven't kept pace, they said.
In Kennewick, for example, the population has climbed by almost 19,000 people in the last 10 years, while the police department has seen a net gain of one officer, said Chief Ken Hohenberg.
If approved, the public safety sales tax would add three pennies to a $10 purchase, raising money for public safety programs and personnel.
A total of 32 police officers and sheriff's deputies would be added, along with two deputy prosecutors and an assistant city attorney in Kennewick.
Funding for a seventh Superior Court judge position also would be included, along with money to support the Tri-City Metro Drug Task Force and adult and juvenile drug court programs. A new mental health court also would be created, and the measure would pay for gang intervention and prevention efforts.
Keane described it as a "comprehensive approach to improving our criminal justice system" that "offers a good balance between enforcement and prevention."
Richland Police Chief Chris Skinner said voters should consider what the proposal would offer countywide, not just in their own jurisdiction.
"I really encourage people to look very holistically at the Aug. 5 ballot measure," he said. He described the measure as a strategic investment that will "position us very, very well into the future as we deal with the challenges that we're going to be facing."
The sales tax would expire after 10 years.
The Benton-Franklin Community Health Alliance's mental health committee also recently voted to endorse the measure, highlighting in particular the mental health court that would be created.
"Mental illness is a concern of our community, medical providers and school system. Although the sales tax is not perfect, it opens the door to a more compassionate response to those individuals who don't belong in jail, and are in need of treatment," chairwoman Ti Nelson said in a news release.
A group called Citizens for Safe Communities, www.citizens4safecommunities.com, has formed to promote the public safety sales tax measure.
Another group, Benton County Citizens for Efficient Criminal Justice and Law Enforcement, which doesn't appear to have a website, came together to oppose the measure. Its chairman said in March that public safety is a legitimate need, but his group feels the sales tax measure is asking for too much money.
-- Sara Schilling: 582-1529; firstname.lastname@example.org; Twitter: @saraTCHerald