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Cracks appear in Island County law-and-justice tax proposal

Island County Sheriff Mark Brown has openly expressed frustration with two county commissioners as he struggles to find a way to fund more deputies for his beleaguered department.

Brown and Prosecutor Greg Banks co-chair the Island County Law and Justice Council, which has been trying for months to find a better way to fund criminal justice departments. The members approved a draft letter Wednesday that recommends the commissioners place a measure on the ballot for an increase of 0.3 percent of sales tax for criminal justice services in the county, cities and town. It would cost an extra 3 cents on a $10 purchase.

The council had decided on the sales tax request in a 11-1 vote at a special meeting earlier this year. They offered no recommendation about when the measure should be on the ballot. If passed, it would generate an estimated $1.8 million per year, with two-thirds going to the county and the rest divided among municipalities.

This time, Commissioner Angie Homola, a Democrat, said she had reservations about the proposal and abstained in the final vote to send the letter. Commissioner Kelly Emerson, a Republican, had said at the council’s special meeting that she was opposed to the recommendation, but for very different reasons.

Emerson argued that the county already has enough money in the budget to fund criminal justice if priorities are changed.

In contrast, Homola said the entire county is suffering from cuts and she objects to a tax increase that would restrict commissioners from spending any of the money outside of criminal justice.

“I would feel so much better about putting this on the ballot if I would have some percentage to offset costs,” she said.

The Law and Justice Council — made up of criminal justice officials, local government representatives and citizens — recommends that all of the revenue collected should be devoted exclusively to criminal justice purposes. In  addition, the members recommended that the ballot include non-supplanting language so that the additional revenues can’t be shifted around, but are only spent on new programs and new employees.

In an interview, Brown said he feels caught in the middle. While the two Democratic commissioners say there’s no money in the current budget for additional law-and-justice spending, Emerson claims without presenting any specifics that cuts can be made to fulfill the $3 million hole in criminal justice departments.

“One of the commissioners claims that funding may exist. I have yet to see a plan articulating this claim and see little cooperation from other members of the board in achieving that goal, if it is in fact the case,” he wrote in a letter to fellow council members.

At the meeting Wednesday, the sheriff’s frustration was compounded as Homola expressed doubts about the proposed measure.

Homola emphasized that departments outside of the law-and-justice system are also suffering and that more deputies will mean additional work for the treasurer and human resource departments. She repeatedly said that county employees haven’t received cost-of-living pay increases in five years.

“It’s concerning to me that there’s zero dollars here that will go to other staff,” she said.

Sheriff Brown, however, pressed his points with the commissioner. He argued that public safety should be the top priority. He said he didn’t believe the treasurer’s office would be extremely burdened by having to issue paychecks to 10 or so additional deputies.

Brown said the only way the tax increase would pass is if it’s structured in such a way that the voters know exactly where the money is going. He said he advised the commissioners during the campaign for Proposition 1, the failed ballot measure to raise property taxes, that they should be specific about where the funds would go, but his advice was ignored.

Homola said she talked to mayors in the county and concluded that more people should be at the table to discuss the issue. Banks, the prosecutor, pointed out that the Oak Harbor and Langley mayors are members of the council and receive all the agendas, but have never once attended a meeting.

Echoing another member of the council, Homola also questioned whether it would make sense to put the measure on the ballot this year when the election is so close. She said the failure of  the measure would make it that much harder to ever ask voters for revenue in the future.

“I must also think of the good of the whole,” she said.

Brown countered that the need in his office is too urgent. He lost 23 percent of his commissioned officers in the last three years.

“I caution you and your fellow commissioners not to procrastinate too long and demand too much beyond the current request,” Brown said.

Banks explained that the council took on the issue at the request of Commissioner Helen Price Johnson and that the letter is only a recommendation. He said the council is focused on law-and-justice departments and it’s the commissioners’ job to weigh the recommendation with other concerns in the county.

In the end, the council voted to send the letter to the commissioners without changes.

 

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