Franklin criminal justice sales tax passes

Tuesday night may become an important turning point for gang suppression and public safety in Franklin County.

Franklin County Sheriff Richard Lathim said the 0.3 percent criminal justice sales tax could have a huge impact on public safety in the next decade and help the county control gangs and be a safer community.

As of Tuesday night, almost62 percent of voters were in favor of the 30-year tax bump.

So far, 4,526 were supporting the measure, while 2,823 were opposed, or about 38 percent. The measure needs a simple majority of 50 percent to be approved.

It's exactly what officials have been hoping for, said Franklin County Commission Chairman Bob Koch.

"This is quite a showing," he said. "It's 61 percent. It's pretty definite that people are for it."

If the measure is approved, the county would receive 60 percent of the revenue, and the remaining 40 percent would be divided among Franklin County cities based on their population.

The measure is meant to pay for the construction and operation of an expanded and remodeled jail, a Pasco police station, municipal court space and gang suppression.

Lathim said it's encouraging to see such a high voter response. Voters got the message that the sales tax bump was a legitimate need, he said.

"The jail is absolutely crucial to public safety," he said.

This is the second time the county has asked voters to approve a criminal justice sales tax measure for a new jail.

The first time there was no specific project listed. The general sales tax proposal and the 2009 ballot measure failed, with 53 percent opposing the 2009 measure.

Lathim said he thinks offering tours of the crowded, deteriorating county jail helped. That's something the county did for the first time this year.

And the county got a lot of good questions about the need from voters, he said.

On Monday, the jail had 210 people, which means about 50 to 75 were sleeping on the floor. The jail was originally built for less than half that number.

"We've got to do something and we've got to do it now," Lathim said.

The county will be able to move on the jail project quickly, Koch said. Although the sales tax increase won't be collected immediately, the county can work on the bond for the jail construction and planning for the project.

About $17.8 million for the construction of the jail would be generated by using 0.2 percent of the proposed sales tax. The county plans to use the other 0.1 percent for operational costs. The 0.1 percent would bring in about $500,000 to $600,000 a year.

The design for the expanded jail is a two-tiered building with cell blocks arranged in a wheel around a small area where the overhead master control booth hangs. An officer inside it would control the interlocked doors and monitor the cells by sight and video. The plan is to return the current jail to about 89 maximum-security beds.

Lathim said he's hopeful the jail could open by 2014.

If the number of inmates increase, Franklin County may still have to limit who is jailed in the next two years as a temporary measure until the expansion is done, Lathim said.

The sales tax measure would mean an additional 3 cents on a $10 purchase, 30 more cents on a $100 purchase or $3 on a $1,000 purchase

Pasco would receive more than $1 million per year, enough to pay for a 20-year, $14 million bond that would include space for Pasco Municipal Court in the expanded jail project and a police station. Gang suppression and other public safety uses also were included in the city's list.

Pasco's most immediate need is more courtroom space for Pasco Municipal Court, said Pasco Mayor Matt Watkins. It's important to continue to partner with the county on courts, he said.

The jail expansion includes a two-story building in front of it that could house Pasco Municipal Court on the first floor and the sheriff's office, information services and dispatch on the second floor.

And the sales tax revenue will help Pasco make it a little harder on gangs, following a longtime practice of making life as hard as possible for those who choose the gang lifestyle, Watkins said.

And that gang suppression can only help the whole county, Koch said.

The sales tax revenue also will provide some of what the city needs for a new police station, Watkins said.

Now officials need to ensure the revenue from the sales tax bump is spent the best way possible, he said.

So far, 7,742 ballots have been counted, and officials estimate 1,900 are left to be counted. In Franklin County, 27,410 ballots were issued.

Franklin County Auditor Matt Beaton predicted a voter turnout rate of 42 percent to 45 percent, just under the statewide voter turnout estimate of 47 percent. The auditor's office received 1,998 ballots Tuesday, which makes the county's voter turnout about 38 percent so far.

The next ballot count is at 5 p.m. today.

-- Kristi Pihl: 582-1512; kpihl@tricityherald.com