Benton County weighs $36M in wants against $13M in bank

Benton County began sorting through its $36 million public safety sales tax wish list this week. It has about $13 million in its reserve fund.
Benton County began sorting through its $36 million public safety sales tax wish list this week. It has about $13 million in its reserve fund. Tri-City Herald

Thirty-three organization have $36 million worth of ideas about spending the millions of dollars held in Benton County's public safety sales tax reserve.

County officials began reviewing proposals to spend down the county's massive public safety reserve this week, more than a month after it solicited proposals from its own departments as well as local nonprofits and government agencies.

The committee will meet three times to review the ideas, which run the gamut from a facility for those with neurological disorders to a needle exchange to mental health counselors for schools and a specialty court to handle criminal cases against military veterans.

In all, the 33 pitches included $13 million in requests from county agencies and $23 million from other groups.

The committee will identify projects that are eligible for funding under terms of the public safety sales tax and forward its report to the county commissioners for a decision.

On Tuesday, it was unclear if the county will spend any of the money.

As of April, the reserve stood at $13 million, down from nearly $16 million at the end of 2017.

At the commission's regular weekly business session, officials said they're struggling with how to be the best stewards of taxes entrusted by the voters to improve public safety. That could include saving money for the future.

Deputy Administrator Loretta Smith-Kelty said the review committee saw a need to set money aside for the future when it identified potential outlets that could be eligible for public safety money, but haven't applied for funding.

"Just because we have money in the kitty, it's for that next program that comes up that we never anticipated. Now we have money for it," she said.

Commissioner Jim Beaver said he's frustrated at the "barrage" of requests from cities and other entities he said are trying to use county money to save their own budgets.

Beaver said he's heard no complaints that the county isn't spending the money.

"I don't want this public safety tax to turn into something the voters didn't agree to," he said.

The public safety sales tax reserve is funded by the three-tenths of a percent public safety sales tax approved by voters in 2014.

The ballot measure aimed to increase funding for law enforcement, courts and other anti-crime initiatives.

The county receives 60 percent of the proceeds, or more than $7 million annually, while the cities split the remaining 40 percent.

Th sales tax is widely credited for increasing law enforcement staffing by 35 and boosting budgets for the courts, crime prevention initiatives and specialized courts, including a mental health court and a drug court.

Benton County has been unable to invest all the revenue, drawing fire from local mayors who say it shouldn't be accumulating in a savings account.

The controversy erupted this spring after the commission rejected a $100,000 request from the city of Kennewick to cover a shortfall in the budget for the Metro Regional Drug Task Force, which it manages.

A federal grant fell through and the city argued the public safety sales tax reserve should pay, noting that the drug task force was one of the activities called out in the 2014 campaign.

County officials bristle at the accusation they are mishandling the public safety money. They argue the balance is the the result of higher-than-expected revenue, lower-than-expected jail expenses and the difficulty of hiring new law enforcement officers.

The tax expires in 2024 unless Benton County voters agree to renew it.

Benton County posts updates on the public safety sales tax as well as a year-end report at bit.ly/publicsafetysalestax

Wendy Culverwell: 509-582-1514