Benton County commissioners approved a $2 million plan Tuesday to enhance public safety and pay for gang and crime prevention targeting youth middle school age and younger.
The move is the latest step to spend proceeds from the 10-year, 0.3 percent public safety sales tax approved in August 2014. To date, the county has collected $7.2 million.
The budget approved Tuesday includes $307,000 for two full-time detectives, $146,000 for a detective for Tri-Cities Metro Drug Task Force, $271,000 for mental health court and $76,000 for a new prosecutor to handle felony appeals. It also includes money to hire public health nurses to call on at-risk families with young children.
It sets aside $500,000 to award grants to eligible nonprofits to support crime prevention and anti-gang efforts focused on middle school students. The county posted a request for proposals on its website Tuesday afternoon.
$500,000 Gang and crime prevention grants
$77,000 Appellate attorney
$307,000 Two detectives, with equipment
$108,000 Expand drug court
$272,000 Mental health court
$146,000 Metro Drug Task Force detective
Benton County receives 60 percent of the proceeds from the public safety tax, billed as a way to replace funding lost when Washington’s motor vehicle excise tax disappeared. Kennewick, Richland and Benton County’s other cities split the remaining 40 percent. The tax raises about $9 million annually and by law can only be spent on law enforcement, criminal justice and crime prevention.
Commissioner Jim Beaver said the county has been asked to fund activities not included in the proposal to voters.
“We have three commissioners who are adamant that we aren’t going to do that,” he said during a press conference Tuesday to discuss the 0.3 percent program. His comment was aimed at former Benton County Commissioner Claude Oliver who asked the commission to divert public safety money to support a crisis response center.
More people will get help for their drug addiction instead of going to jail.
Andy Miller, Benton County prosecutor
Prosecutor Andy Miller said Oliver had ample opportunity to raise the crisis response issue during the many public hearings that formed the public safety program and didn’t.
“Bringing it up two years after the fact is probably not the best way,” he said.
In the first two years it has collected the sales tax, Benton County has generally used the money to add sheriff’s deputies. Kennewick and Richland both have used public safety money to add police officers.
The budget approved Tuesday makes preventing crime a priority.
The money will expand the adult and juvenile drug court programs to reduce the existing four- to five-month backlog. Drug court lets defendants get their cases dismissed if they successfully complete treatment.
Miller said said treating the disease rather than the crime will help defendants lead more stable lives if they’re freed of the stigma of a criminal convictions.
“More people will get help for their drug addiction instead of going to jail,” he said.
The mental health court, which launched a week ago, operates in a similar vein. Eligible defendants receive treatment in lieu of trials. In a related move, the county is preparing to invest $5.6 million to establish a mental health unit at the county jail to house vulnerable inmates.
I wish there was a magic wand and we could turn around and solve all the world’s problems.
Shon Small, Benton County Commission chairman
Benton County modeled its drug court program after Spokane, which aims to usher offenders through the system without saddling them with criminal convictions.
The county also will add a crew of public health nurses to visit homes of at-risk families, namely households with very young children with the goal of equipping them with the tools they need to provide stability for their children. Franklin County has a similar federally-funded program.
Commission Chairman Shon Small acknowledged the public safety program won’t meet every need.
“I wish there was a magic wand and we could turn around and solve all the world’s problems,” he said. “We’re doing the best we can.”