As $15.6M idles in crime-fighting account, Tri-City leaders dicker

Members of the Tri-City Regional SWAT team take part in a search warrant late February at a home in Pasco. Police officials said the activity was part of a Tri-City Metro Drug Task Force investigation at the home.
Members of the Tri-City Regional SWAT team take part in a search warrant late February at a home in Pasco. Police officials said the activity was part of a Tri-City Metro Drug Task Force investigation at the home. Tri-City Herald

Tri-City officials intended to meet last week to talk about the millions of taxpayer dollars that are not being spent to keep Mid-Columbians safe.

Instead, the gathering was canceled when the participants couldn’t agree on who should attend and what they should talk about, a sign of growing tension between Benton County and its cities over the proceeds from a 2014 voter-approved sales tax to combat crime.

Benton County Commission Chairman Jerome Delvin intended to spend an hour with leaders from Kennewick and Richland to discuss city-county relations in general and the public safety sales tax money now idling in the county’s savings account.

Numbers released this week show the balance swelled to $15.6 million at the end of 2017, from $12.4 million at mid-year.

Delvin confirmed he canceled the gathering after a flurry of emails dramatically complicated the agenda.

The commissioner said he wanted to meet only with elected officials.

Instead, the attendee list grew to include staff and the list of topics swelled.

Delvin, who was scheduled to fly to Washington, D.C. on county business the next day, said he simply ran out of time and will reschedule the get-together when he returns.

What’s $100,000 out of $15M?

Richland Mayor Bob Thompson confirmed the general sequence of events.

But he defended the attempt to include staff int he conversation, saying it was necessary to get to the bottom of the issues.

An hour wouldn’t have been long enough to work out all the issues that separate the cities and county.

It could have taken on the easiest: Closing a roughly $100,000 funding gap for the Metro Drug Task Force, which Kennewick manages on behalf of the region.

“What’s $100,000 out of $15 million?” Thompson asked, calling the county commission’s approach to the mounting reserve fund baffling.

“It kind of frustrates the hell out of me,” he said.

City-county relations have been strained since last year, when Benton County passed rising jail costs onto the cities.

It kind of frustrates the hell out of me.

Richland Mayor Bob Thompson

More recently, they’ve deteriorated amid complaints Benton County is hoarding public safety sales tax money.

Voters approved the 0.3 percent sales tax increase after supporters promised the money would be spent to beef up law enforcement, fund criminal justice and expand crime-fighting efforts targeting drugs and gangs.

The county gets 60 percent of the money and the cities split the remaining 40 percent on a per-capita basis.

Collectively, the public safety sales tax has been a boon to public safety.

It paid for 35 additional law enforcement officers across the county, turbo-charged investigations into predators who pursue children online for sex, bolstered anti-gang activities, and helped pay for the mental health court and an expansion of the drug court.

The specialty courts are designed to tackle the root causes of crime, dramatically reducing recidivism.

The county and all of its cities proudly point to many successes.

But sales tax receipts have run higher than expected. Benton County has an embarrassment of riches.

It’s hard to spend money

Delvin defends the balance, saying Benton County has found it difficult to deploy the money.

The economy has grown without pause for more than four years.

Delvin said it takes time to ramp up programs, and some of the anticipated expenses haven’t materialized.

Supporters thought the increase in law enforcement officers would translate to more Superior Court cases and a need for more prosecutors and support staff.

That increased caseload hasn’t been as dramatic as expected.

However, Delvin said a push to add a special court to handle cases against military veterans could be supported by the sales tax.

The county is not going to waste the money. It is going to use it for public safety.

Commissioner Jerome Delvin

Benton County Prosecutor Andy Miller said he hopes to replicate Spokane County’s Veterans Enhanced Treatment Court in the Mid-Columbia.

“The county is not going to waste the money. It is going to use it for public safety,” Delvin said.

Delvin walked back an earlier threat to spend the money on criminal justice facilities to stop the arguing.

He’d proposed applying sales tax money toward the $12 million it will cost to rebuild portions of the Benton-Franklin Juvenile Justice Center.

But the sales tax specifically did not include paying for capital projects.

The original promise

The growing balance alarms the people who advocated for the sales tax to voters in 2014.

The tax has to be renewed in 2024. Advocates fear voters will be reluctant to reauthorize it if they think the money isn’t being spent to make them safer.

Al Wehner chaired the Public Safety Sales Tax campaign in 2014, about the same time he retired as a Richland police captain.

These days, he divides his time between babysitting for his young grandchildren and consulting with local law enforcement on unsolved murder cases.

He largely stays out of the issue, but he stepped in when he learned about the startling reserve fund balance.

Wehner said the campaign did everything it could to ensure taxpayers would get what they thought they were buying when 53 percent agreed to the sales tax.

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Kennewick police K-9 Officer Isaac Merkl introduces Bear, a K-9 police dog trained to detect narcotics, in 2013. Merkl and Bear still work with the Metro Drug Task Force and the Violent Crimes Task Force. File Tri-City Herald

That included attaching the spending plan to the resolution that the county commission approved when it put the matter on the ballot.

A resolution isn’t a law, but ignoring it would be a break with voters that could jeopardize renewing the tax.

Wehner said he wants the commissioners to commit to the original promise.

He also wants the elected commissioners to turn decision-making over to the Law and Justice Council, which includes representatives from the region’s law enforcement agencies.

Finally, he asked the state auditor’s office to review the public safety sales tax.

The auditor’s office said it is conducting its routine accountability audit of Benton County and confirmed it has received questions from citizens concerning the public safety fund.

The auditing staff is considering the matter as part of its broader audit, which will take several months to complete.

Delvin welcomes the outside review by the state’s top financial watchdog.

“More than happy to have one,” he said.

Wendy Culverwell: 509-582-1514, @WendyCulverwell