Like most of the community, we were surprised to hear that Benton County has opted to stockpile funds generated by a voter-approved public safety tax rather than use them for, well, public safety.
In 2014, voters agreed to a three-tenths of 1 percent tax increase intended to bolster law enforcement, courts and crime prevention.
Benton County gets 60 percent of that revenue, with West Richland, Richland, Kennewick and Prosser splitting the balance based on population.
As of mid-2017, the county had amassed a $12.4 million reserve with the funds. Year-end figures are not yet available, but the true balance could be even higher.
Kennewick city officials have taken them to task, asking why money that voters expected would be spent on keeping the community safe has instead become another reserve account for the county.
At particular issue is the state of funding for the Tri-City Metro Drug Task Force. A grant that historically helped fund the long-standing multi-jurisdictional task force has not come through this year, and the task force is faced with a $125,000 shortfall.
Partners in the task force have asked for each government entity, including Benton County, to increase its support to make up the difference.
Kennewick representatives say voters were presented with a plan for how the money would be spent when they were asked to approve the tax, and Benton County is not holding up its end of the deal.
The plan called for the county to spend $200,000 annually to support the anti-drug work. Instead, it spent $6,800 in the first six months of 2017, just 2 percent of what it budgeted for the two-year period, according to county documents.
But Benton County commissioners are divided on the issue, with some saying their prudent savings of the tax money has made them a target for cash demands from other jurisdictions.
Commissioner Jim Beaver, a former Kennewick mayor, made an impassioned speech for Benton County to hold onto its money at a recent meeting, saying its partners don’t want to pay and instead want to put the burden on the county coffers to fund the task force.
“I played on that team for 18 years,” he said. “ … This is just a push to say, ‘Why Benton County doesn’t just pay for it.’ I’m pushing back … and I’ll continue to push back.”
Only Commissioner Shon Small asked for at least short-term support of the task force while a long-term funding plan can be found.
The commissioners even questioned whether there was any actual prescribed distribution for the public safety tax that they are required to follow.
It’s clear they consider the public safety tax revenue their money to do with as they please.
On that point, they are wrong.
“How the Revenue will be Spent,” was a two-page spreadsheet used during the campaign, forecasting various programs the public safety tax money would support. It called for a reserve fund of about $370,000 — not $12 million.
Commissioners say the reserves reflect the time it takes to implement programs and that the cushion also will help in the transition if voters choose not to approve the tax when it is up for renewal. The sunset year is 2024.
They also accuse other jurisdictions of not using their money wisely and, therefore, leaving the task force in financial jeopardy. Commissioner Jerome Delvin even threatened to spend the money: “If they want me to spend money, I’ll spend it. That will take it off the table.”
That is an irresponsible remark we hope he made in the heat of the moment — not an actual threat.
We, along with the voters, surely expected Benton County would spend public safety taxes on matters of law enforcement and public safety, not use a major part of it on a savings account.
They even admit the funds were coming in higher than forecast.
A really good way to ensure the tax will not be renewed by voters is to show tax revenue not being used as promised while county accounts grow fatter.
The Tri-City Metro Drug Task Force is critical to our community’s safety. Benton County needs to do its part — not wholly fund it, just take on a fair share of the shortfall.
And then it needs to come up with a plan to show voters how our money is going to be spent to make our community safer.