Sound Off: Public safety requires Proposition 1 approval

By Greg Banks and Mark Brown

For four years your sheriff and prosecutor have been united in urging the Island County Commissioners to make public safety the top county budget priority. We appreciate the difficulty of the decisions the commissioners must make, but we have been disappointed in the level of cuts made to Island County’s public safety infrastructure. Our departments’ budgets and staff have been reduced while costs have gone up. Our ability to carry out our fundamental public safety mission has been significantly impaired.

To the credit of the current Board of County Commissioners, they have made substantial and unprecedented cuts to all areas of county government. Previous boards expanded county government on a steady diet of increasing tax revenue generated by new building construction. That new construction brought an increase in population, who in turn made increasing demands on government. In a vicious cycle, those demands could only be met by encouraging more new construction, and the tax revenues that came with it. Like a pyramid scheme, the system can only be sustained as long as new people are continuously added to it, year after year after year.

The crash in the real estate market switched off the influx of new people, and their new-construction spending. The combined effects of the market crash with sustained record low interest rates, restrictions on property tax increases, and rising labor and insurance costs have devastated the county’s budget. We have endured three rounds of budget cuts in less than two years. We expect that the impacts in 2011 will be far worse than anything we have experienced to date.

We have both concluded that, in spite of our disagreements with the county commissioners, the modest property tax increase they have put on the Aug. 17 ballot is truly needed to protect our most basic government functions. The levy increase will raise an additional $2 million, to just cover the projected $2 million shortfall in 2011. In other words, it won’t add any new programs. It will only keep us from shrinking more. We support Proposition 1 because it is modest, it is reasonably fair, and it is necessary.

Like many of you, we have asked the county commissioners to eliminate non-essential programs before raising taxes and before cutting law enforcement. But it is now obvious to us that, even after cutting all of those “quality of life” programs funded by local taxes, the county would still face a deficit over $1.5 million next year. Since law and justice programs account for the majority of the county’s “general fund” budget, it would be impossible to cut that much money without causing serious injury to our most basic, no-frills, law enforcement and prosecution functions.

The tax increase is estimated to cost the owner of a $250,000 home an extra $40 per year, with increases over the next four years limited to the rate of inflation. Nobody likes to pay more taxes. But a property tax increase is one of the few tools the county has that can effectively put the brakes on its budgetary freefall. If that freefall is not slowed, law enforcement and prosecution will be crippled. This is a modest payment for each property owner that will have a huge protective effect on essential services.

Effective governing requires compromise. Proposition 1 may not be everything we would want as the county’s law enforcement leaders. But it’s a reasonable step to restructuring the county’s financial plan and protecting against further law and justice cuts.

We ask that each of you take a serious and objective look at the budget, and what happens if Proposition 1 doesn’t pass. Your sheriff and prosecutor have put aside partisan differences to make a decision based on what we believe is best for you, and your continued protection. We hope that after full and fair consideration, you will approve Proposition 1, and preserve the most basic and essential county services.

(No county resources were used in the preparation of this opinion.)

Mark Brown is the Island County Sheriff. Greg Banks is the Island County Prosecuting Attorney.

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