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Opinions split on county law-and-justice levy

Island County Prosecutor Greg Banks answers a question during a meeting Monday night on a proposed law-and-justice levy. Sheriff Mark Brown is seated next to him. - Justin Burnett / Whidbey News-Times
Island County Prosecutor Greg Banks answers a question during a meeting Monday night on a proposed law-and-justice levy. Sheriff Mark Brown is seated next to him.
— image credit: Justin Burnett / Whidbey News-Times

The first round of public meetings concerning a proposed $2.6 million law and justice tax was held on Whidbey Island this week.

If attendees were an accurate reflection of the community, backers of the proposal may have their work cut out for them.

Many voiced strong support for the measure, but an equal number made it clear they are not yet convinced or are undecided.

“I’m scared,” Coupeville resident Benye Weber said Monday. “It’s time we, the citizens, realize how serious this situation is.”

“I would strongly urge you to please support this moving forward and do it as soon as possible,” Oak Harbor resident Terica Taylor said.

Others expressed sympathy for the troubles of law enforcement, but disagreed with details of the proposal or simply said they can’t afford to help.

“Hospital is coming at us, law and justice is here; we just got through with parks and rec,” said Bruce Freeman, of Oak Harbor.

“Who’s next? Everybody wants my wallet and everybody else’s wallet who has property.”

“There is only so much,” Freeman said.

“Government wants more money, more money, more money, and they figure out ways to get it,” added another man during a meeting Thursday.

To account for budget cuts and reductions in staff, the Island County Law and Justice Council passed a resolution to seek voter approval of a special levy this November.

As proposed, the money could only be spent on law and justice — police, courts, prosecutors, etc. — and the levy would sunset in five years.

The council is an advisory group, however, with no decision-making power. The resolution was a request to the Board of Commissioners to proceed with the ballot measure this November.

Board support wavered in the past, and where each commissioner currently stands is unclear, but the commissioners authorized a series of public meetings on Whidbey and Camano islands to gather community input before making a final decision on whether to put the measure on the ballot.

The first meeting was Monday in Coupeville during the commissioner’s monthly evening meeting. The second was Thursday evening at the Heller Road fire station in Oak Harbor.

Crowds numbered no more than 25 people. Each event was hosted by Island County Sheriff Mark Brown and Prosecutor Greg Banks, two advocates for the levy proposal.

During Thursday’s meeting, Banks explained the headaches and shortcomings resulting from insufficient funding. He described a criminal justice system that is hanging by a thread.

“I’m terrified of the case we’re going to blow because we’re overworked,” said Banks, describing his department’s caseload. “It’s going to happen.”

“We’re on the razor’s edge,” he said.

Brown talked about problems facing the sheriff’s office, saying he no longer has staffing to adequately do the job.

“You’re not getting the level of service I think you should get,” Brown said.

Dave Penrod, former Coupeville town marshal, spoke in favor of the proposal, saying he knows what it’s like to be understaffed in a dangerous situation.

“We’re paid to get there and protect,” Penrod said. “It’s an awfully, awfully bad feeling going there knowing your back up is coming from Deception Pass.”

He had a direct message to the board.

“I’m tired of all this stuff with the commissioners,” he said. “One of you needs to stand up and finally say enough is enough, let’s get this done.”

North Whidbey resident Art Huffine said he understands the issues well and thanked Banks and Brown for their service, but he questioned why law and justice should get funding when other county departments are also struggling.

“Why should we have a levy just for law and justice when the entire county, every department, could come up and cry a swan song more severe than what you’ve done,” he said.

“It’s a crisis on a county-wide basis, not just law and justice,” he said.

 

The next meetings begin at 7 p.m. Tuesday, July 9, at the Camano Senior Community Center, 606 Arrowhead Road, and Wednesday, July 10, at Trinity Lutheran Church in Freeland, 18341 State Highway 525.

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