Island County commissioners balk at law and justice tax
By JUSTIN BURNETT
Whidbey News Times Staff reporter
July 21, 2012 · Updated 5:09 AM
It’s looking more and more as though voters this year will not be deciding on a special sales tax to bolster law and justice funding in Island County.
The Island County commissioners discussed the issue at two public meetings over the past week, and although none seem to doubt the need, the proposal appears to have sunk under a host of concerns, from questions of timing and support to whether or not a sales tax is really the best mechanism to drum up additional funding for cops and courts.
Commissioner Helen Price Johnson, chairwoman of the board, said in an interview Monday that something may well move forward in the future but right now there are just too many issues that still need to be hammered out.
It’s not the outcome Island County Sheriff Mark Brown and Prosecutor Greg Banks, two of the loudest voices behind the proposal, have been hoping for. Both men manage departments that are in need of additional staffing and wanted the measure on a ballot this year.
“These arguments can go on forever,” Brown said. “I need something now.”
“I need revenue for my agency badly,” he said.
Banks said he too was disappointed. The board has known about the serious funding problems facing the law and justice community for some time and could have been working for months to prepare for a November ballot measure. Due to time constraints and hesitancy, it’s now clear that won’t happen.
“For a practical matter, it’s dead for lack of action,” Banks said.
Earlier this month, the Island County Law and Justice Council submitted a letter to the board requesting that it place a ballot measure before voters for a three-tenths of 1 percent sales tax. It would cost an extra 3 cents on a $10 purchase.
If passed, the special would generate an estimated $2.2 million per year, with two-thirds going to the county and the rest divided among municipalities.
The letter did not suggest a specific time to run the ballot measure, though Brown said he personally had been hoping to do so this year. It did however, recommend that language be added to any measure that would stipulate the money raised would only be spent on criminal justice.
State law requires that the money from the special tax only be spent on law and justice needs. However, it does not prevent the board from taking back or supplanting the same amount from the benefiting department’s annual budget, supplied from the county’s general fund.
It’s been a sticking point for some and continued to be so at the commissioners’ regular work session this past Wednesday. Commissioner Angie Homola, who had expressed earlier concerns that the letter specifically requested a measure that would not help other struggling departments, said San Juan County is pursuing the same special tax this November but it allows a 100 percent supplant.
“They actually sat down at the table and had a conversation, like adults,” said Homola, adding that all parties, including the sheriff, agreed how it would work and how the money would be spent.
“I would like to see that kind of cooperation,” she said. “I would like us to sit at the table and have a conversation about what’s good for Island County because what’s good for Island County is good for all of us.”
Homola also questioned whether the full council was really on board with the proposal as the vast majority of members were not present when the course of action was decided. Also, she said a wide “swath” of the public was not represented and that they too should have a voice.
Finally, she questioned whether a sales tax was really the best way to go as the measure, if passed, would bump up the total sales tax even more.
The current rate of 8.7 percent would be increased to 9 percent, which would be trumped only by areas in King County.
Commissioner Kelly Emerson agreed, saying that the county already has one of the highest sales tax rates in the state. She remains against the proposal, saying that she believes the board could do a better job finding money within the current budget — she offered no suggestions as to where — and that hiking the existing sales tax rate would be “devastating to local businesses.”
She also contested that the board she be more worried about a struggling public than preserving levels of government, citing record foreclosures.
“You think we’re bleeding as a county, how do think the people out there that are trying to exist are doing?” Emerson said.
“You can’t just keep going to them and squeezing blood out of a turnip,” she said.
Price Johnson emphasized that she has no doubt over the present need, that she agrees with the council. But, she expressed concerns about timing and focus of any measure before the people.
She said she learned from Proposition 1, a proposed county property tax that failed in 2010, that people want to know exactly where the money will go and what will be different in the county.
She also said she would want a sunset built into any proposal so the issue could be revisited at a later time.
“Before I could even consider putting it on the ballot I would need to be able to answer those concerns,” Price Johnson said.
She said she didn’t know how the other cities, which would be beneficiaries of the special sales tax, felt about the matter. While there was some discussion about the positions of some other elected officials at the meeting, Coupeville Mayor Nancy Conard attended the board’s Monday meeting and addressed the issue directly during the public comment period.
She said she has met with a handful of public officials, including Langley Mayor Larry Kwarsick and Oak Harbor Mayor Scott Dudley, and that she personally supports the idea but is concerned that it would be premature to place anything on a ballot this year.
She suggested a “coalition of support” for the measure be developed first. If it were to move forward this year, the board would have to decide and take action by mid August, which leaves little time to get a campaign together.
However, other municipal officials feel otherwise. Later that same evening, the Langley City Council voted unanimously to recommend the board move ahead now, putting the issue on the November ballot as it should see a large turn due to this being a presidential election year.
It would generate about $40,000, which would help the small city add a sorely needed officer to its ranks.
Brown was at the board’s work session this past Wednesday and argued passionately on behalf of the proposal, one that does zero supplanting. He emphasized that organizing a convincing campaign was the board’s job, not his, and claimed the board is not making public safety a priority.
While commissioners have consistently opposed that, saying that 57 percent of the budget is spent on cops and courts, Brown said such arguments don’t wash. It makes up the bulk of all county budgets simply because it’s they are some of the most expensive departments to fund.
He also addressed criticism he’s heard around the county and made it clear that he won’t apologize for advocating for additional funding.
“I heard the other day that it’s the swine whine,” Brown said.
“Don’t say I’m not a team player because I’m advocating for my department, that’s not fair,” he said.
He said the issue is public and officer safety.
“That’s my message to you,” Brown said. “However you take this, however you want to continually talk about it, do it. But, realize there is a bit of urgency and I think, my opinion, that is your top priority in county government.”
Banks was not at the meetings this past week but in an interview Tuesday morning, he said he was very frustrated by the board’s lack of action. He said he understands concerns about timing and the importance of establishing a strong campaign to inform voters, but said these issues could have been addressed months ago. The need has been clear for a long time, he said.
Also, as the Langley City Council demonstrated, a failed effort is by no means a forgone conclusion. If the board agrees that there is a need, then they should step aside and let the public make a decision.
“If the need is there, it seems like they should ask voters and get on with it,” Banks said.
Contact Whidbey News Times Staff reporter Justin Burnett at firstname.lastname@example.org or 360-675-6611 ext. 5054.