News

County leaders propose law and justice tax

by AMANDA WINTERS
Sequim Gazette

Clallam County’s top officials in law and justice are asking for county commissioners to put a new sales tax on the ballot as soon as possible.

 

In an effort to close a $2.4 million budget shortfall, County Administrator Jim Jones recommended 30 layoffs, merging both district courts and imposing 26 unpaid furlough days on himself, all three commissioners and the director of human resources.

 

But in a letter to the commissioners, law and justice officials said they can’t meet their basic mandates if they are forced to make the recommended cuts.

 

The letter, signed by Sheriff Bill Benedict, Prosecuting Attorney Deb Kelly, both Republicans, and judges Rick Porter, George L. Wood, Kenneth Williams and S. Brooke Taylor, outlines a series of cost-cutting measures and proposes a 0.1 percent juvenile justice sales tax.

Cuts too much

At an Oct. 13 budget meeting, Kelly said her office already is struggling to handle the prosecution of felony crimes in Clallam County Superior Court. The elimination of two and a half positions to save $196,932 as proposed in the Administrator’s Recommended Budget would result in no longer prosecuting nonviolent crimes, including theft and drug dealing as felonies, she said.

 

“I think that’s an unacceptable hit to public safety,” she said.

 

Nonviolent crimes normally prosecuted as felonies would be reduced to misdemeanors, which would mean lighter punishments and lower offender scores. Misdemeanors are prosecuted in district court and carry a maximum jail sentence of 364 days, she said.

 

“Serious offenders will be on the streets when they should be in prison,” she said.

 

Kelly said she never thought she’d volunteer to lead the charge for a new tax, but without it there are no good options.

 

The letter proposed shifting $60,150 of Prosecutor’s Office salary to a non-general fund source but stated further reductions are not sustainable.

 

Other proposals include cutting $400,000 in general fund expense from the Sheriff’s Office budget and covering courthouse security when the security officer cannot be present, cutting $121,104 from Superior Court general fund expenses, merging both district courts and transferring jury sourcing to the Clallam County Clerk’s office.

Candidates on tax

County commissioner candidates Linda Barnfather, Democrat, and Jim McEntire, Republican, attended budget meetings Oct. 13 and heard the tax proposal.

 

One of them will take the place of Clallam County Commissioner Steve Tharinger, who is not seeking re-election, in January 2012.

 

McEntire, a Port of Port Angeles commissioner, has said the last dollars he would cut would be to public safety and public health. He has also said he would not support raising taxes.

 

McEntire said he would only support the proposed sales tax increase if the following conditions were met: There was no other option in properly funding all of the core functions of county government, a corresponding tax decrease was found to offset the additional tax imposed, there was no displacement of funds from current levels of law and justice spending into other budget categories and if the county got a handle on what is driving up costs for public safety departments and found a way to diminish the need for increased spending.

 

Barnfather, a small business owner and legislative assistant, said the tax increase will ultimately be up to voters but it might be necessary.

 

Barnfather said she was happy and proud to see department leaders take such a close look at their budgets to try and make cuts without layoffs.

 

“This might be what we’re going to have to do,” she said of the tax.

Requesting reserves

The six who signed the letter requested commissioners dip into the county’s reserves to cover costs for law and justice pending the approval of the sales tax.

 

Tharinger said the county needs a budget that isn’t contingent on new revenue they can’t count on.

 

Passing a new tax will be difficult and proponents will need to have a unified message, he said.

 

“You’ve said, ‘No, that’s not the case,’ to people who say, ‘No new taxes, no new revenue, we can make this work,’” he said.

 

Jones said cost of living adjustments are $500,000 this year alone and some of the proposed cuts by law and justice departments can’t come to fruition until the 2013 budget year. The same problems will be faced down the road, he said.

 

“No matter what happens, the long term challenges are there,” Tharinger said.

 

Reach Amanda Winters at awinters@sequimgazette.com.

 

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