It took more than a year of work to bring a 0.3 percent public safety sales tax to the ballot in Benton County.
Even more work lays ahead now that the measure has been embraced by voters. Officials said they're excited to get moving on implementation.
"You'll see momentum picking up shortly," said Eric Hsu, the county's indigent defense coordinator and chairman of the county Law and Justice Council.
"I think everybody is just excited that the voters have supported the local law and justice system in passing the tax," he added. "It's a good vote of confidence."
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The Aug. 5 election hasn't yet been certified, so the results of the sales tax vote aren't official. But the measure is passing with about 53 percent approval, and the numbers are unlikely to change much.
Certification is Aug. 19.
After that, a next step will be for county commissioners to adopt an ordinance enacting the sales tax, which will add three pennies to a $10 purchase in the county. That's to happen by mid-October, with the tax taking effect in January.
Officials have estimated the tax will bring in about $9.2 million annually, with the county's criminal justice-related departments -- from the sheriff's office to the prosecutor, public defense, clerk and coroner -- using 60 percent. Kennewick, Richland, West Richland and Prosser will share the rest based on population.
The county and cities all plan to add more police officers or sheriff's deputies, with about 30 additional positions planned across the agencies.
They'll largely be patrol positions.
But the public shouldn't expect to see a contingent of new officers hitting the streets right at the first of the year, when the sales tax starts being collected. The hiring and training process for officers is lengthy, and money from the sales tax won't start flowing to the county and cities until a few months into 2015.
In Kennewick, for example, the plan is to add 12 police officers with sales tax money. Chief Ken Hohenberg said it will take a couple of years to fill all the positions, and he hopes to have the first four hired no later than June of next year.
That city also intends to add an assistant city attorney and a couple of support staff positions. Richland and Prosser likewise plan to use some of their shares of the sales tax money for support staff, and the measure is to pay for several other positions in the county, from four corrections and two jail booking staff to two deputy prosecutors and a deputy coroner.
The adult and juvenile drug court programs and Tri-City Metro Drug Task Force also are to be bolstered.
And the sales tax will provide money for gang and crime prevention and intervention efforts, including partnerships with youth organizations like the Boys & Girls Clubs of Benton and Franklin Counties, and Ignite Youth Mentoring. The concept is that groups will apply for funding; details still are to be hammered out.
Another piece of the sales tax package is funding for a mental health court program. A working group has been meeting since before the sales tax measure went to the ballot, with some members visiting other mental health courts in the state. Andy Miller, county prosecutor, said a lot of work remains but "everybody is really excited about making this happen."
The earliest it could be in place is around next spring, he said. A diversion program is further along and could be ready before then.
The public safety sales tax money will have to be closely tracked, and jurisdictions are working on how it will be handled in their budgets.
The county, for example, likely will have a separate fund for that stream of revenue. In Richland, "we're going to be proposing a separate revenue account for that criminal justice sales tax money, and I'll be building a separate, standalone budget for the sales tax," Police Chief Chris Skinner said. "That will enable us to be able to be fully transparent and track every expense we'll have."
Supporters have said the sales tax is needed to help the county's criminal justice system keep pace with the growing population, combat increasing criminal gang activity and beef up prevention and intervention services.
A citizen's committee formed to support the measure, raising more than $29,000.
The measure also had organized opposition in the form of a different citizens group. It didn't report any fundraising.
Opponents have said officials asked for too high a tax and didn't do enough to cut costs and eliminate waste before going to voters.
Leon Howard of West Richland, one of the opponents, has alleged some officials improperly used public resources and their positions to campaign and raise money for the sales tax measure -- claims the pro campaign denied. Howard reached out first to the state Public Disclosure Commission and then sent a citizen action letter to the state Attorney General.
PDC staff are looking into the matter, a spokeswoman for the agency said.
-- Sara Schilling: 509-582-1529; firstname.lastname@example.org; Twitter: @saraTCHerald