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Gangs, homeless teens and sex trafficking. Benton County cracks open its $11M crime fund

Benton County has awarded $2.4 million from public safety sales tax proceeds to local nonprofits, including $650,000 to the Boys & Girls Clubs of Benton & Franklin Counties for its Prosser teen program and for the new central Kennewick clubhouse.
Benton County has awarded $2.4 million from public safety sales tax proceeds to local nonprofits, including $650,000 to the Boys & Girls Clubs of Benton & Franklin Counties for its Prosser teen program and for the new central Kennewick clubhouse. Tri-City Herald

Kids in central Kennewick can soon thank local shoppers for their new clubhouse.

Benton County is spending down its multimillion-dollar public safety sales tax reserve and the Boys & Girls Club’s new Kennewick project is one of the prime beneficiaries.

The county commissioners voted unanimously Tuesday to spend $2.4 million from their $11 million reserve for 11 programs that combat crime by focusing resources on at-risk youth.

The commissioners decided not to fund requests to add mental health counselors in schools or to help the health district create a needle exchange. Both were pitched to them as public safety issues.

Boys & Girls Clubs of Benton & Franklin Counties secured the largest award, $650,000.

The county is providing $500,000 for the new clubhouse being built in central Kennewick and $150,000 for a teen program in Prosser.

Brian Ace, the group’s executive director, is thrilled.

“Programs like Boys & Girls Clubs were always the intention of the public safety sales tax,” he said.

The 23,000-square-foot clubhouse is being built at 720 Jean Place, where it will serve the 1,000 school-aged children who live in a neighborhood considered at risk for gang recruitment.

The clubhouse will counteract the lure of gangs, said officials.

“It’s designed to give kids that home away from home, that family away from family,” Ace said.

Brain Ace, executive director of Boys & Girls Clubs of Benton & Franklin Counties, is reaching out to the community for a final "push over the top" at the organization's groundbreaking ceremony for a new $5.1 million clubhouse facility at 726 S. J

Construction wraps up in November and the clubhouse will open shortly after the New Year.

The county’s contribution is the latest in a string of donations that total about $5.5 million.

The Vancouver-based M.J. Murdock Charitable Trust recently awarded a $300,000 grant.

In August, Tri-Cities Elks #2755 presented small but meaningful check for $2,500. Elks leaders read about the clubhouse and secured a grant from their national organization to support its mission.

The county found itself in the unusual position of having more money than it expected after a 2014 voter-approved public safety sales tax added three cents to most $10 taxable sales the county.

The tax, which must be renewed in 2024, was pitched as a way to support law enforcement, to combat crime and to bolster the criminal justice system.

By law, the proceeds are split 60-40 with the cities, with the county receiving the larger share.

Kennewick, Richland, West Richland and Prosser invested their money in additional police officers, school programs and so forth.

Though the county beefed up the clerk’s office, funded a mental health court and added sheriff’s deputies and prosecutors, among others, the tax raised more money than expected and the reserve fund swelled.

As it approached $16 million earlier this year, a local battle erupted over spending the money versus saving it.

Mayors argued the county should lower the fees cities pay to house prisoners at the county jail to free up money for more police officers.

The sales tax’s original supporters complained the county should be spending the money to fight and deal with crime.

Under pressure, the county commissioners invited county departments, nonprofits and public agencies to apply for grants, to be award

ed over the 2019-20 biennium.

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Benton-Franklin Health District received $610,000 for its nurse-family partnership, which helps low-income, at-risk mothers access services. The partnership was one of the first ever funded by the Benton County public safety sales tax and continues to get county funding. File Tri-City Herald

In June, it received $36 million in requests, including $22 million from 18 community groups.

The winning proposals were screened to ensure they comply with the ballot language. The county will contract with the recipients to deliver the promised programs.

Other recipients are:

  • Partners for Early Learning, $134,000 for a home visitor program focused on high-risk families in Richland.

  • Benton-Franklin Health District, $610,000 for its nurse-family partnership, which helps low-income, at-risk mothers access services. The partnership was one of the first ever funded by the public safety sales tax and continues to get county funding.

  • Chaplaincy Healthcare, $80,000 for its Step Up program, which works with youth and families in the juvenile justice system to address the root causes of crime and reduce recidivism.

  • Christian Association of Youth Mentoring, $90,000 to provide faith-based mentoring for local youth.

  • Communities in Schools, $236,000 for its All in For Kids program, which focuses on students who have dropped out or are at risk for doing so.

  • Kiona-Benton City schools, $89,000 for its crime prevention program.

  • Mirror Ministries, $130,000 for its work to fight human trafficking and to rescue victims. The county previously supported Mirror Ministries with a small grant.

  • Safe Harbor, $400,000 to support My Friends Place, its shelter for homeless teens.

County commissioners will dig into a second batch of in-house requests when it develops its budget for the coming biennium in the fall.

The county sheriff, clerk and prosecutor have requested money for programs such as a veterans’ court, enhanced drug court, additional clerks and school resource officers.

Those will be discussed during budget discussions in October.

The county staff notified several applicants that their proposals were not recommended for funding, though they could be considered by the commission.

The Benton-Franklin Health District’s plan to establish a syringe exchange program was not recommended by staff for funding. The Kennewick and Richland school districts’ joint proposal to hire mental health counselors for schools was not recommended.

Commissioner Shon Small is championing a separate plan to address mental health in schools. He hopes to create a mobile mental health unit to serve all schools but the plan is preliminary.

Public Safety Sales Tax information is posted online at bit.ly/PublicSafetySalesTax

Wendy Culverwell: 509-582-1514
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