When Benton County voters approved the public safety tax four years ago, they were told the money would add police, bolster gang and crime prevention, provide money for a mental health court and continue the drug task force.
No one anticipated the county would store up millions while the cities spent their portion as promised. But that’s what has happened.
Now that the county commissioners have been called out for amassing a $13.6 million public safety reserve fund (as of March), they are trying to find a way to spend it – as if voters will forgive the hoarding if the money ends up going to a noble cause.
We aren’t sure Benton County residents will be so understanding.
The public safety tax expires in 2024 and will have to be re-approved. County commissioners are ruining their credibility with voters and are putting the fund at risk if they don’t stick to the tax measure’s original intent.
The commission recently listened to dozens of people pitching requests for the unspent funds.
The ideas include putting more mental health counselors in Kennewick and Richland schools, boosting staff at the region’s only homeless youth shelter and helping with upcoming expenses at the new Boys & Girls Club of Benton and Franklin Counties.
All are worthy proposals deserving of financial support.
But that’s not the point.
Voters did not approve spending an additional three cents on a $10 purchase so the county could donate to charity, help out a nonprofit or re-direct the money some other way.
It seems the commissioners are going to great lengths to find other uses for the cache so they don’t have to consider requests by the cities, like using some of the money for a new radio tower near Benton City, for example.
Benton County and the cities split the public safety tax on a 60-40 basis, with the county getting the lion’s share. State law sets it up that way.
Ironically, though, the sales tax money is generated mostly within the borders of Kennewick, Richland, West Richland and Prosser – not rural Benton County.
City and county officials clashed earlier this year when the Tri-City Metro Drug Task Force lost a grant and was short about $100,000. When city officials went to the county to ask for help, commissioners initially balked.
They accused the other jurisdictions of not using their money wisely. But Benton County wasn’t fiscally responsible when voters were told there would be a reserve fund of $370,000 and it instead set aside millions.
Eventually, the commissioners relented and decided to help save the drug task force through the summer. How it will be funded next year, though, is still unsettled.
At one point in discussing the reserve account with Kennewick city officials, Benton County Commissioner Jerome Delvin said commissioners could find a way to spend it and take it off the table.
Voters might think that’s exactly what is going on as the commission continues to consider proposals by community groups. The commissioners will have to work hard to change that perception.
The debate over the public safety tax shouldn’t be about city money versus county money. It is all taxpayer money, and the vast majority of Benton County residents pay into both coffers.
Citizens would be better served if county and city officials worked together to solve our law enforcement challenges, instead of separating the pots and refusing to share.