-- Editor's note: Today is the first story in a two-day series on a proposed public safety sales tax in Benton County. Sunday's stories will examine staffing and overtime issues.
Gun shots rang out in the dark -- at least two dozen of them. Pop, pop, pop, pop, pop.
They struck homes, a parked car.
No one was seriously hurt, but there was a close call. Two children were in the car and avoided being hit by hugging their bodies to the floor.
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The incident earlier this week on West 21st Avenue in Kennewick was a gang shooting -- one of a growing number in the Tri-Cities.
Tri-City law enforcement officials said they're increasingly dealing with gang violence.
They're also seeing the area's population grow, while their own numbers haven't kept pace.
And crimes are becoming more complex and time-consuming to investigate, with changes in the law and continually advancing technology.
But a sales tax measure on the ballot Aug. 5 in Benton County would provide resources to help, proponents said.
It would put more officers on the street and prosecutors in court.
It also would pay for gang and crime prevention work, and help sustain existing programs that have had success in disrupting narcotics trafficking and in helping drug offenders clean up and get back on the right path.
"The strength of this ballot measure is that it's comprehensive," said Al Wehner, a retired Richland police captain and manager of the pro campaign. "It is a very comprehensive approach to improving our criminal justice system, but it's also a very well balanced and strategic approach."
The 0.3 percent sales tax has the support of the county's top criminal justice officials, as well as a cross-section of business leaders who serve as honorary chairmen and women of the citizens committee formed to promote the measure.
A different group has formed in opposition. Members of Benton County Citizens for Efficient Criminal Justice and Law Enforcement said that much additional revenue isn't needed and officials didn't first take formal steps to cut costs and eliminate waste before going to voters.
"They're not proposing to build a new facility, they just want to add to bureaucracy," said Jerry Martin of Kennewick.
'We need help'
The public safety sales tax would add three pennies to a $10 purchase in the county, raising an estimated $9.2 million annually.
Benton County's criminal justice-related departments -- from the sheriff's office to the coroner -- would share 60 percent, with the cities of Kennewick, Richland, West Richland and Prosser dividing the rest based on population.
The county and the cities all would add more police officers or sheriff's deputies.
Benton County also would add two deputy prosecutor positions, including one dedicated to gang crime, along with additional staff in the jail.
The county's share of a seventh Superior Court judge position also would come from the sales tax package.
And some long-standing programs that have seen their funding dip -- the adult and juvenile drug courts and the Tri-City Metro Drug Task Force -- would be bolstered.
The need for the measure is clear, proponents said. Law enforcement staffing hasn't kept up with the area's growing population.
Richland, for example, gained 8,000 residents in the past 10 years and one police position. It was a similar story in Kennewick, which grew by 19,000 residents and saw a net gain of one police officer.
Officers' time also is tied up more than before, with changes in the law adding steps to standard investigations, with technology such as smartphones adding layers of information to sift through, with a rising amount of gang-related violence.
Gang crime is difficult to investigate and prosecute, with those involved -- witnesses and victims alike -- often uncooperative, officials said.
In Kennewick, "our officers' time is tied up 26 percent more than it was five years ago just dealing with the current type of activity that we're dealing with," said Police Chief Ken Hohenberg.
His department has looked for partnerships and reduced administrative and supervisor positions to put more officers on the road, he said. "We need help. From my perspective, this (tax) is a have-to-have for us, not just in Kennewick but throughout Benton County," Hohenberg said.
Helping youth, mentally ill
The sales tax proposal also designates money for gang and crime prevention and intervention, including partnerships with groups like Boys & Girls Clubs and Ignite Youth Mentoring to empower youth and keep them out of gangs. Groups would make proposals and apply for funding.
Money also would go toward case management services at My Friends Place in Kennewick, the region's only teen homeless shelter, and for a program in which nurses work with low-income first-time mothers through home visits.
Sales tax revenue also would be used for a mental health court and diversion program aimed at better dealing with lower-level offenders who are in contact with the system primarily as a result of their mental illness.
"They are taking up jail space and we're not addressing the steps so it doesn't happen again, and also we're not doing a good job by them," said County Prosecutor Andy Miller. He said officials throughout the criminal justice system see a need.
Hohenberg and Miller are part of the steering committee for Citizens for Safe Communities, the group in favor of the measure.
What the opponents say
Opponents take issue with the amount of the proposed sales tax. Martin said officials haven't justified the 0.3 percent request.
He was part of the citizens advisory committee charged with making a recommendation to county commissioners on the measure.
The group at first favored a 0.1 percent sales tax but later changed its position to 0.3 percent, he said.
"There was no real new data," he said, and he feels the committee was unduly influenced by the county's Law and Justice Council, which is made up of criminal justice officials. The chairman of the advisory committee told the Herald the group wasn't pressured by the council.
Martin also wants to see the county implement performance audits to find and eliminate areas of waste, fraud, abuse and inefficiency, noting they were recommended by the citizens advisory committee but aren't prescribed in the ballot measure.
Leon Howard of West Richland, also part of the opposition group, said he could have supported a 0.1 percent sales tax, noting cost of living has risen. But 0.3 percent is too much.
Residents in the county "need not pay higher taxes for a criminal justice system which is already working exceedingly well," he wrote in an essay on the proposed public safety sales tax.
Howard claims Hohenberg, Miller and other officials have used public resources to campaign for the measure. He filed a complaint with the state Public Disclosure Commission in June, and on Friday sent a letter to the state attorney general.
The pro campaign has denied Howard's claims, describing the PDC complaint as riddled with errors and misinformation.
Proponents say 0.3 percent is the amount required -- a lesser sales tax wouldn't provide enough revenue to meet the need. And the citizens advisory committee, Law and Justice Council and county commissioners all agreed on the amount after more than a year of work.
They also say officials will keep close tabs on the sales tax revenue, with each agency reporting to the public on how it's spent. And there's consensus among county officials to implement performance audits, with details of exactly how they would work to be fleshed out.
The opposition group hasn't done any fundraising. Citizens for Safe Communities, on the other hand, has brought in just more than $27,000.
Proponents say the opposition group hasn't engaged -- passing on invitations to debate the issue at forums -- and that's short-changed the public. In contrast, Citizens for Safe Communities has accepted every invitation, making more than 30 presentations in the community, they said.
Howard said the opposition group is a loose coalition, and vacations and scheduling issues prevented them from appearing at some forums.
The sales tax, if approved, would expire in 10 years, requiring another public vote to continue.
A public safety sales tax has been on the ballot in the county twice before in recent years. A 0.2 percent request failed in 2007 and 2008.
Franklin County voters approved a 0.3 percent measure in 2011.
Howard urged voters to examine the pros and cons of the measure. Wehner did, too, saying that in his view there's "no better return on your investment."
-- Sara Schilling: 509-582-1529; email@example.com; Twitter: @saraTCHerald
By the numbers
The 0.3 percent public safety sales tax on the Aug. 5 primary ballot in Benton County would support a range of criminal justice positions and programs, including:
-- About 29 additional police officers or deputies spread throughout each of the cities and the county.
-- The county's share of a seventh Superior Court judge position.
-- Two additional deputy prosecutors.
-- One assistant city attorney position in Kennewick.
-- Continued funding for the Tri-City Metro Drug Task Force and adult and juvenile drug courts.
-- A mental health court and diversion program.
-- Gang and crime prevention and intervention services and programs.
Citizens for Safe Communities, the citizens group working to promote the measure, is online at www.citizens4safecommunities.com.
The opposition group, Benton County Citizens for Efficient Criminal Justice and Law Enforcement, doesn't have a website.