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Sales tax recommended to support Island County law and justice

A group of citizens, government officials and cops is recommending that Island County commissioners ask voters to increase the sales tax to fund extra deputies, extra police cars and other needs within the law and justice community.

The county’s Law and Justice Council met for a special meeting Wednesday to decide whether to recommend some sort of tax increase to address dire funding needs and whether it should be a sales tax or property tax.

In the end, they voted to recommend that the commissioners place a measure on the ballot to increase sales tax by three-tenths of 1 percent, with the caveats that all the money go to law and justice functions and it can’t be used to supplant current spending.

The increase would generate an estimated $1.8 million per year, but only two-thirds would go to the county; cities and towns would divide the rest.

Yet disagreement within in the Law and Justice Council itself may foreshadow the difficulty supporters will have in selling the measure to the public.

Linda Sturza, a member of the council, said she believes the county commissioners already have the money to fund law and justice departments adequately.

“They don’t want to do what’s right in eliminating areas that are non-essential, but they are asking for money to fund things that are essential,” she said.

Commissioner Kelly Emerson, who attended the meeting, flatly said she will oppose putting the measure on the ballot; only the commissioners have the power to do so.

In addition, another sales tax increase would not be welcome by most merchants. Island County’s rate is currently at 8.7 percent, which is one of the highest rates in the state. If it’s increased to 9 percent, only King County will have areas with higher rates.

By contrast, the Island County general fund property tax levy is the lowest.

Jill Johnson, director of the Oak Harbor Chamber of Commerce, said a sales tax increase is a bad idea. She pointed out that the burden of the tax would not be equitably distributed throughout the county, with areas like Camano Island receiving services but collecting little in taxes.

“It’s another hardship placed on the business community and hinders their ability to create jobs,” she said, arguing that it will compel customers to go off the island to purchase big-ticket items.

In addition, she pointed out that the sales tax increase wouldn’t generate enough funds to match the needs.

Island County Sheriff Mark Brown and Prosecutor Greg Banks, both members of the council, have been the loudest in sounding the alarm about funding problems. Their departments, as most in the county, suffered massive budget cuts in the last few years; at the same time, the crime rate has increased.

Brown, for example, lost 23 percent of his commissioned officers in the last three years and described his office — currently with 33 commissioned officers — as the lowest-staffed in the state based on population.

Brown was outspoken about his needs during the special meeting.

“I am prepared to tell you that I need funding and I need it sooner than later,” he said. “And I’m not sitting on the fence any longer.”

Brown has said he needs to add 10 deputies, three corrections officers and eight new patrol cars to his office in order to return to 2008 levels. That would require an extra $1.4 million a year.

In addition, Banks did some number crunching for other law-and-justice departments — including his office, the courts, the clerk and the coroner — and came up with a rough $1.9 million.

Wednesday, nobody on the council disagreed that the situation is dire, but there wasn’t a consensus about the best solution. The arguments revolved around whether a proposed increase in sales or property tax would be best.

Both Brown and Banks favored a property tax increase. Banks estimated that an increase of 25 cents per $1,000 of assessed value would generate about $3 million a year. That would cost the owner of a $250,000 house an extra $62.50 a year.

Others, including Coupeville town Councilman Bob Clay, preferred the sales tax hike. Under state law, an increase of up to three-tenths of 1 percent is allowed for the purpose of funding law and justice. Banks estimated that a three-tenths of 1 percent sales tax increase would generate about $1.8 million a year.

Clay pointed out that, under state law, one-third of the funds generated by the tax would go to cities and towns, which are also in need of funding for cops. He said that would build support among voters in the towns for the new tax.

Clay admitted that merchants will be opposed to a sales tax increase, but he believes it would have the best chance of passing. He said sales taxes are also paid by all the people who visit the county, but property taxes are solely borne by property owners.

Perhaps more importantly, a sales tax measure would need only a simple majority of voters to pass, while a property tax increase would require a supermajority vote of 60 percent.

Clay argued that the measure shouldn’t be put on the ballot until next year so there’s enough time for a campaign and it doesn’t impact the upcoming election.

“I think you get one chance,” he said. “I don’t see this thing going out and failing and then going out again.”

The council, however, didn’t make any recommendation as to the timing of a ballot measure, but left it to the commissioners.

Brown said he would prefer a property tax since it would generate an adequate amount of money.

“It kind of looks like the difference between a tourniquet and a Band-aid,” he said.

In addition, Brown and others said they were concerned the funds wouldn’t be used for law-and-justice purposes. The law states that only one-third of the funding can be spent on law-and-justice.

The final motion, which passed with an 8-3 vote, addressed his concerns by recommending that the commissioners authorize a ballot measure for a three-tenths of 1 percent sales tax increase with the requirement that all the money be used for law and justice functions and the funds can’t be shifted to other departments.

In the end, Brown said he will support the proposed ballot measure because any amount of money will help in the current crisis. He released a lukewarm statement Friday, saying the sales tax increase will move his department “in the right direction.”

“While the proposal of any tax increase is likely unpopular and undesirable, I am of the opinion that it is necessary and should be put before the voters,” he wrote. “The debate over sales tax vs. property tax is difficult for the following reason: the sales tax does not generate the minimal funding needed, but the property tax does not address the needs of our cities.”


 

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