A sales tax that would put more law enforcement officers on the streets in Benton County, bolster gang and crime prevention and intervention efforts and pay for the creation of a mental health court was passing at the ballot box Tuesday night.
The 0.3 percent public safety sales tax was getting 14,019 yes votes, or 53 percent, to 12,233 no votes, or about 47 percent.
An estimated 10,000 ballots still are left to be tallied in the county; another round of results will be released Wednesday.
The results of the election won’t be official until they’re certified Aug. 19.
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Supporters said Tuesday that they’re cautiously optimistic the approval trend will hold as more ballots are counted.
“I think the voters recognized that need, and we’re certainly thankful,” said Al Wehner, a retired Richland police captain and manager of the pro campaign.
Kennewick Police Chief Ken Hohenberg added that he’s humbled by the support in the community. “I believe this (sales tax package) will not only maintain but enhance quality of life in the Tri-Cities over the next 10 years,” he said.
The measure would expire in a decade, requiring re-authorization from voters to continue.
If ultimately approved, the sales tax measure will add three pennies to a $10 purchase in the county, raising an estimated $9.2 million annually for public safety needs. Benton County would use 60 percent, with the rest divided among the cities of Kennewick, Richland, West Richland and Prosser.
The county and cities all would add more police officers or sheriff’s deputies. Benton County also would add two deputy prosecutor positions, some additional staff in the jail, pay for its share of a seventh Superior Court judge position and fund a range of crime and gang prevention and intervention efforts, including partnerships with groups such as Boys & Girls Clubs and Ignite Youth Mentoring.
Sales tax revenue also would be used for the Tri-City Metro Drug Task Force and the adult and juvenile drug court programs, which have struggled with diminished funding, and on a new mental health court and diversion program.
The sales tax package has support from criminal justice leaders in the county, and several area business leaders signed on as honorary co-chairpersons of the citizens committee that worked to promote the measure. The group, Citizens for Safe Communities, has raised more than $29,000.
Another group, Benton County Citizens for Efficient Criminal Justice, formed to oppose the sales tax. It hasn’t reported any fundraising activity to the state Public Disclosure Commission.
Leon Howard of West Richland, a member of the group, said Tuesday night that he’s disappointed with the initial results, adding that he feels officials asked for too much money.
“I don’t think we need to rob that much more from the people,” he said.
Howard filed a complaint with the PDC and sent a letter to the state attorney general alleging some officials, including Hohenberg, used public resources to campaign for the measure — a claim the pro campaign denies.
Benton County voters have weighed in on a public safety sales tax twice before in recent years. A 0.2 percent request failed in 2007 and 2008. In Franklin County, voters approved a 0.3 percent request in 2011.
Sara Schilling: 509-582-1529; email@example.com; Twitter: @saraTCHerald