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Island County law-and-justice leaders want $2.6 million measure on ballot

Island County Prosecutor Greg Banks addresses the commissioners last week about the shortcomings in the justice system that have resulted from budget reductions. He and Island County Sheriff Mark Brown, right, want the board to support a fall ballot measure that would seek millions for law and justice funding. - Justin Burnett / Whidbey News-Times
Island County Prosecutor Greg Banks addresses the commissioners last week about the shortcomings in the justice system that have resulted from budget reductions. He and Island County Sheriff Mark Brown, right, want the board to support a fall ballot measure that would seek millions for law and justice funding.
— image credit: Justin Burnett / Whidbey News-Times

Law-and-justice leaders are once again lobbying the Island County commissioners.

They are asking the commissioners to sign off on a proposal allowing them to ask voters this fall for more than $2.6 million in funding.

“I feel like we’re one big fish away from the line snapping,” Island County Prosecutor Greg Banks told the commissioners.

During a presentation to the board last week, Banks led a panel of law-and-justice officials that laid out their case with a litany of service shortfalls, from overburdened attorneys to reigning officer safety issues and delayed response times.

Banks describes law and justice in the county as “woefully underfunded.”

Things are being held together by a thread, he said, and the consensus among leaders is that the system is in the process of “unraveling.”

Changes in the economy forced the commissioners to cut about $6 million from the budget over the past five years.

Though law and justice, which includes police, courts and the prosecuting attorney’s office, still receives the bulk of funding — more than 55 percent of the general fund — the cuts hit the departments hard.

The jail, under the umbrella of the Island County Sheriff’s Office, is no exception.

Following the presentation to the board last week, jail administrator De Dennis listed problems facing his facility during the commissioners’ annual tour of the jail Monday afternoon.

Low staffing and all the headaches that brings — including overtime costs, officer burnout and problems with security requirements associated with big court cases — are the biggest problem facing the facility, he said.

“My lieutenants are saying, ‘De, we can’t do this much longer,’” Dennis said.

“I’m really concerned how much longer I can go on,” he said.

Adding corrections officers are just the top of the list. He also cited a need for new computers, software upgrades, video-courtroom equipment and a new fingerprint identification system.

Island County Sheriff Mark Brown called the situation at the jail an “ongoing organizational nightmare” and credits Dennis with holding the operation together despite his limited resources.

Last June, the Island County Law and Justice Council recommended the board move forward with a ballot measure that would increase sales tax by three-tenths of 1 percent, generating about $2.2 million per year.

The board was unwilling to support the request at the time, citing a host of issues. There was discussion about whether a property tax would be more appropriate and others worried there was insufficient time to prepare for a successful fall ballot measure.

The delay ensured that the law-and-justice community would not get financial relief for more than a year because funding from a successful ballot measure doesn’t start to flow in until the following year.

If the board doesn’t put the issue before voters this fall, a 2014 ballot approved by the public would not result in additional funding until 2015.

Timeliness is an issue and a serious discussion needs to begin soon, Banks said during the recent presentation to the commissioners.

“What the Law and Justice Council really needs to know is where the board is on this issue,” Banks said.

During a later interview, Banks confirmed that the Law and Justice Council has yet to make another formal recommendation to the board and that any decision will likely be different from the one in 2012.

First and foremost, it would probably propose a property tax as opposed to a sales tax, he said.

A sales tax wouldn’t raise enough money, and the funds it would raise would need to shared with neighboring municipalities.

Banks said the funding needed is about $2.6 million.

Most would go to the Sheriff’s Office to hire additional police and corrections officers — about $2.3 million — and the rest would be split among the prosecutor’s office and the courts.

Banks, the council’s co-chairman, said the group would also likely propose a sunset of three to five years.

That would give the public the chance to reconsider and allow the board to easily and permanently dispense with the tax should the county’s financial situation change significantly.

But voters must be given the option of approving or rejecting a measure first, and that can only happen if the commissioners give the green light.

Banks said the clock is ticking.

“If they are going to take action, it needs to be soon.”

 

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