Politics & Government

Benton County's $14M bank account makes it the hot date to the public safety sales tax ball

Benton County has about $14 million in its public safety reserve fund. Nonprofits have $23 million worth of ideas on how to spend it.
Benton County has about $14 million in its public safety reserve fund. Nonprofits have $23 million worth of ideas on how to spend it. Tri-City Herald

Nonprofits have a lot of ideas about spending that $14 million Benton County has stashed in its public safety reserve fund.

About $23 million worth of ideas.

The county commission politely listened Thursday as dozens of organizations, including county agencies, pitched requests for unspent funds generated by the 0.3 percent public safety sales tax voters approved back in 2014.

The fund's balance has ranged as high as $16 million but stands at $13.6 million, according to just-released figures for March.

The pitches included a pitch to support a $17 million one-stop center for those with autism and neurological disorders, to a request to pay for 14 mental health counselors — one for every high school and middle school in Kennewick and Richland.

Superintendents David Bond and Rick Schulte of Kennewick and Richland said the $1 million they want would be well spent combating the mental health crises that contribute to school shootings..

"Our students are begging for mental health counselors," said Bond, adding that state-funded psychiatrists are generally assigned to testing and evaluation, not counseling.

The Kiona-Benton City School District asked the county to support its internal efforts to bolster students and steer dropouts toward GEDs and vocational training.

The district tends to get overlooked by the nonprofits focused on its larger neighbors in Benton County.

"Not once does Benton City get mentioned," a school administrator said.

One request is sure to generate controversy — the Benton-Franklin Health District asked for funding to open a needle exchange somewhere in Benton County.

The health district recently partnered with a Walla Walla nonprofit to open a needle exchange in Pasco, saying addicts are more likely to seek treatment when they use exchanges.

They also reduce HIV and Hepatitis C transmission and cut the number of accidental needle pricks suffered by paramedics, firefighters and police officers, the health district said.

The Boys and Girls Club of Benton and Franklin Counties , which recently broke ground on a $5 million clubhouse in central Kennewick, asked for money to operate and furnish the center, designed to provide a safe, healthy place for low-income students who could be at-risk for becoming involved with gangs.

My Friends Place, the region's only shelter for homeless youth, asked for money to boost staffing.

Karen Kirk-Brockman, executive director, said a change in state oversight means it needs to double it staff to continue serving the same number of teens.

Without a safe place to stay, homeless teens quickly turn to crime and gangs to survive on the street, she said.

Mirror Ministries asked for the county's continued support for its work to halt commercial sex trafficking in the area through education and outreach..

County agencies offered their own wish lists as well, including three detectives for the sheriff's department, money to shore up the parole department, paying for a new veterans court and a cashier for the clerk's office.

Sheriff Jerry Hatcher wants to add a school resource officer so that Finley and Kiona-Benton schools no longer have to share Deputy Brad Klippert.

The commission won't sign off on anything until the proposals are scrutinized by the county prosecutor's office to ensure any award complies with the law and the spirit of the voter-approved sales tax.

That tax generates three cents on most $10 purchases in Benton County.

The commission expects to review the proposals again in two to three weeks.

The county is considering special requests for the public safety sales tax after it came to light that the tax is generating more money than it can spend.

The county receives 60 percent from the tax. Kennewick, Richland, West Richland and Prosser split the remaining 40 percent.

Commissioners indicated they're more interested in one-time expenditures than ongoing commitments.

The sales tax generates about $600,000 for the county each month. About half of that is already committed to supporting law enforcement, the court system and crime-fighting initiatives.

Background and financial reports are posted online at bit.ly/BentonPublicSafety

Wendy Culverwell: 509-582-1514, @WendyCulverwell