PASCO — Franklin County voters might be asked to support a criminal justice sales tax in the general election.
County commissioners have yet to approve placing a sales tax measure on the ballot, but they expressed tentative support for the idea Wednesday.
There isn't a specific proposal yet in terms of how much the sales tax would be or exactly what it would pay for.
The county previously asked voters to support a 0.3 percent sales tax to pay for a new county jail and a Pasco police station in 2009. The measure narrowly failed.
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Sheriff Richard Lathim told county commissioners Wednesday that the jail represents a "pressing need."
Although the number of prisoners at the jail has been slightly down for two years, Lathim said the population has remained far above the 100-people capacity for which the jail originally was built.
Maintenance of the aging building has continued to be a problem. The roof needs to be replaced, which would cost about $500,000, Lathim said.
"I don't believe we have the money to fix the roof without some additional source of revenue," he said.
Lathim said a cell has had to be evacuated due to leaks, and there are concerns this could become a wider-spread problem. The jail's condition also could lead to bogus and legitimate claims against the county for damages, he said.
And the need for more jail space now and in the future isn't going to go away, Lathim said.
Commissioner Brad Peck said his final decision will depend on what the ballot proposal is.
Peck wasn't opposed to putting the measure on the ballot, but he said he wasn't convinced the county needed to build a new jail right now.
Instead, he said the county's law and justice council should consider updating the current jail and leasing space from Benton County to house overflow prisoners at the Benton County jail. The Franklin County jail currently houses almost twice what it was built for.
But Commissioner Rick Miller said he thinks a new county jail is needed to keep the community safe.
Leasing space and transporting prisoners would be costly, he said.
Miller said he would support putting the measure on the ballot.
He said he isn't in favor of concurrent terms to address space issues, where someone serves more than one sentence at the same time.
Lathim said the longer the county waits, the more expensive a new jail could become.
But Peck said with the current economy, he's not sure that conventional wisdom holds true.
Miller said there really isn't a good time to put a sales tax measure on the ballot. The county should provide the information to the public and let voters decide.
The law and justice council reconvened this past month to look at solutions to the county's jail space problem.
The council is asking commissioners to consider placing a sales tax measure on the ballot or to at least hold a public hearing to consider doing so, Lathim said.
"We've come a long ways in this county and the city of Pasco to change the reputation of what we had years ago and we want to stay on top of that," Lathim said.
-- Kristi Pihl: 509-582-1512; firstname.lastname@example.org