Law and justice officials prepare for tax talks

Looking into an economic crystal ball, county budget makers predict a shortfall in funds toward the end of 2009.

With law and justice activities making up two-thirds of the budget, county leaders are discussing the possibility of a sales tax increase of two-tenths of 1 percent to support the programs.

“I think it’s good government to have this discussion now, before we find ourselves unable to fund certain aspects of law and justice,” Commissioner Mike Chapman said, indicating a tax increase would be a last resort. “The people need to know what we spend to keep our county safe and they need to know it’s getting harder and harder to maintain the same level of service without a dedicated funding mechanism.”

Chapman identified two solutions from myriad possible tactics the Law and Justice Council has reviewed over the past year — a sales tax increase or increased funding from the state.

“Now, we are talking projections here, so we may find ourselves in a good economic situation come this summer in regard to 2008 revenue and we may not have to ask for this increase right away if we don’t need it,” Chapman said, indicating the time could be used to lobby state legislators. “But if we do find ourselves in a bind where we would need to cut services or increase funding, we want the people to know about that situation.”

The proposed increase would bring in a little less than $2 million a year, which would be distributed at 60 percent to the county and 40 percent shared between the cities. A rough estimate surmises that the new sales tax would bring in $1,080,000 going directly toward the county. Port Angeles would receive $497,520, Sequim would receive $139,680 and Forks $82,800. The sales tax would not apply to auto purchases.

For now, a subcommittee of the Law and Justice Council, which Chapman chairs, has endorsed the tax increase, sending the topic up to the full council for discussion on Feb. 12.

“We are going to take a long look at this, a tax increase isn’t something taken lightly,” Chapman said. “But I do know we have a rising case load, more and more people being convicted and incarcerated to an overcrowded jail and we have a third judge in Superior Court now, which are all big obligations to handle.”

In order to balance its budget this year, the county used $1.1 million of reserve funds, the majority of which went toward criminal justice and public safety services.

For the most part, the revenue from the proposed tax increase would maintain current levels of law enforcement in the county with some upgrades expected to occur at the jail.

“I think the level of service we have today is a great level — it’s a level I want to maintain, not cut,” Chapman said.

Chapman indicated there isn’t much more to cut from the budget without the county experiencing a loss in service levels.

“We have many other departments and statutory mandates that we have to do as a government that are all covered under one-third of our budget,” he said. “We’ve had a net decrease of 13 personnel over the past eight years, something that isn’t common in today’s government.”

Sequim Police Chief Robert Spinks brought up the topic for discussion at a Jan. 28 Sequim City Council meeting.

“Now I’m sure the county commissioners, before they make a decision, are going to want to test the political waters and are going to want to hear from each of the three city councils if they would support this recommendation,” Spinks said. The council took no formal action at the meeting.

However, if the tax increase makes the ballot and voters approve the measure, Spinks said he wasn’t sure how the city’s $140,000 would be spent but said he has a wish list.

“No. 1 is to maintain current staffing and services. No. 2 is we have to find some new facilities. We do have the ability to work with a developer to build a suitable new police department with a long-term lease, but the problem is we’ve got to find the money for the lease,” Spinks said. “And the third one is that we need to try and stay ahead or identify new revenues for the rise in jail costs.”

According to Spinks, this year Sequim’s jail budget will probably expand by $100,000.

The Clallam County Law and Justice Council, a consortium of law enforcement, criminal justice and government leaders, will meet at 3 p.m. Feb. 12 in the Clallam County Courthouse, 223 E. Fourth St., Port Angeles, to discuss the proposed sales tax increase.

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