There will be no new Benton County detectives to fight sex predators and gangs or any other public safety initiatives until next year.
County commissioners told the sheriff he can’t move unused money from his jail fund to pay for on-the-street detectives to fight crime.
Chairman Jerome Delvin also said he won’t consider any requests to use the $15.6 million stashed in a public safety reserve fund that haven’t already been budgeted this year.
“We’ve always done that when we’re creating a new position,” he said. “That’s our budget process.”
That could mean that convicted drunk drivers in Benton County will get less oversight from probation officers.
And Kennewick probably won’t get $100,000 it needs to plug a hole in the budget for the Tri-City Regional Drug Task Force, which it manages.
District Court officials briefed the commissioners Tuesday on the dire state of the probation department budget, which could run out of money by the end of the year and is already down several employees.
Kennewick probably won’t get $100,000 it needs to plug a hole in the budget for the Tri-City Regional Drug Task Force, which it manages.
District Court Administrator Jacki Lahtinen, Benton County Prosecutor Andy Miller and District Court Judge John Ziobro updated the board on the impending problem.
They said they were not there to ask for more money from the fund.
However, they repeatedly told commissioners public safety will be at risk if a new source of money isn’t found to keep the probation team in business.
Miller said the county could even be liable if someone convicted of driving under the influence fails to install a court-ordered ignition cutoff device, then hurts or kills someone because they weren’t being properly supervised.
A new source of revenue
The problem? The probation department is chiefly funded through fines and legal fees levied by courts.
Revenue is down about $1 million since Benton County agreed to stop jailing people for failure to pay legal financial obligations to settle a 2015 lawsuit by the American Civil Liberties Union.
The department is raising some probation fees and billing cities, but it says it won’t be enough to cover the loss of defendant-paid fines.
The issue is also behind Sheriff Jerry Hatcher’s request to shift money from his jail fund to patrol, a move he says would let him add three new detectives.
Hatcher said there are 100 or so fewer inmates in the jail because of the agreement, so he doesn’t need the $600,000 in public safety tax money budgeted for six new jail positions.
He said he wanted to move the money to a different account to fund the detectives, who he said are badly needed.
Commissioner Shon Small moved to support Hatcher.
His motion failed when neither Delvin nor Commissioner Jim Beaver offered a second.
‘Public trust is at risk’
Hatcher, the county’s elected sheriff, said he was stunned the commission didn’t seize the opportunity to dedicate a portion of its multimillion dollar public safety sales tax reserve to combat known threats to public safety.
“If we’re not hiring police officers, what are we going to do with that money?” he said. “We have kids that are going to be preyed on.”
“That money” is the three-tenths of a percent sales tax Benton County voters approved in 2014 to support law enforcement and the criminal justice system.
The county receives 60 percent. The cities of Kennewick, Richland, West Richland and Prosser share the remaining 40 percent based on their populations. Collectively, the cities and county have added 35 deputies and police officers, expanded detective ranks, added prosecutors, support staff and funded drug and mental health courts.
We have kids that are going to be preyed on.
Sheriff Jerry Hatcher
Most in local law enforcement say the public safety sales tax has made Benton County safer and they fear the image of money sitting in a reserve fund will send the wrong message to the voters who supported it.
”It feels like they’re putting the public’s trust at risk. They don’t seem to understand that,” Hatcher said. He distanced his department from the unspent sales tax money.
“This is not the sheriff’s office,” Hatcher said. “These financial decisions are the commissioners’.”
But Delvin said the county is being a prudent steward by requiring departments to formally request funds through the normal budget process.
Too much money
Delvin expressed frustration with the sales tax itself. It is generating $7 million annually for the county, well above the $5 million expected. The county commission wanted to ask voters for two-tenths of a percent in 2014, but deferred to the cities, which wanted more, he said.
“The revenue far exceeded what was anticipated, obviously,” Delvin said. “We went with the three-tenths. We’re stuck with that.”
He asked the county’s attorney, Ryan Brown, about lowering the tax rate. He said Brown indicated it isn’t possible without returning to voters.
Delvin questioned Hatcher’s move to request approval for three detectives now, when attention is focused on the unspent balance.
“He’s trying to use three-tenths as an issue,” he said.
Delvin said the commission has funded most requests that have come through the regular budgeting process.
And he’s angered by pressure to spend the reserve fund to silence critics.
Notably, Kennewick city leaders — including City Manager Marie Mosley, Police Chief Ken Hohenberg and a city council member — complained about the unspent sales tax money when the county refused to close a $100,000 funding gap for The Tri-City Metro Drug Task Force, which it manages.
I don’t want to spend money to just spend money.
Commissioner Jerome Delvin
“I don’t want to spend money to just spend money,” Delvin told the Tri-City Herald in a Monday interview that included the sheriff.
Delvin said the commission is open to tapping the reserve fund for crime initiatives that are in line with the original ballot language.
Ideas include awarding one-time grants to organizations working to combat gangs and funding a veterans court to address the unique needs of military veterans facing criminal charges.
The prosecutor is working to replicate Spokane County’s successful veterans court program here.
If approved, it will echo the mental health and drug courts, which treat the root causes of crime and boast promising success at reducing recidivism.
The county commission plans to discuss Kennewick’s Metro Drug Task Force request when it meets March 20.
It will hold a press conference to discuss the public safety sales tax at 2 p.m. Wednesday at the Benton County Justice Center in Kennewick.