Clallam to put juvenile justice sales tax on ballot

Randy Johnson

Clallam County voters this November will decide whether to support a one-tenth of 1 percent juvenile justice sales tax.

The tax would be used exclusively for the operation and maintenance of the Clallam County Juvenile and Family Services Facility at 1912 W. 18th St. in west Port Angeles.

The three commissioners on July 10 directed staff to prepare ballot language and a resolution placing the measure on the Nov. 7 general election ballot.

County Administrator Jim Jones estimated that the tax would raise $1 million per year.

It would add 1 cent to a $10 purchase and $1 to a $1,000 purchase.

“Like it or not, we have to have a juvenile facility,” Sheriff Bill Benedict told commissioners in a five-hour work session this week.

“And I’m a strong believer if you’re going to do something, do it right.”

The tax proposition was discussed at a June 29 meeting of the Clallam County Law and Justice Committee, which includes city police chiefs, judges and Juvenile and Family Services staff.

“We received input from everyone,” said Commissioner Randy Johnson, who co-chairs the committee with Benedict.

“I think everyone was on board with proceeding with this.”

The sales tax would help offset Clallam County’s $1.5 million to $2 million annual structural budget deficit in the general fund for day-to-day operations.

Jones is projecting a $1.5 million budget deficit for 2017.

“I recommend we do move forward, but remember that I’m not an advocate of increased taxes,” Commissioner Bill Peach said.

“The fact is we have a structural deficit in our budget and the reality is we’re giving the public an opportunity to say what is a priority. To that end, I’d prefer that approach.

“If the public says ‘let’s have a tax,’ I’ll salute sharply and we will execute,” Peach said.

“But if they say no, we still have a structural deficit. So to me, this is an important step in terms of communicating that fact.”

Ballot language and the resolution for the tax proposal must be submitted to the county auditor by Aug. 1.

Passage would require a simple majority of 50 percent plus 1 vote.

Commissioner Mark Ozias said the measure will require broad support from the county’s elected officials.

He suggested a pitch that juvenile justice is an investment in youth rather than an expense.

“We’re talking about an investment in our future,” Ozias said.

Johnson agreed, saying, “We can capture kids before they get down the wrong track too far.”

“You’re not always successful, but I’ve heard from several retired judges that they were certainly a great proponent of this,” Johnson said.

Built in 1994, the Clallam County Juvenile and Family Services Facility has a courtroom and a 32-bed detention facility.

It is the only facility among 21 county-operated juvenile detention centers in the state with a licensed crisis center for runaway youth and an in-house drug, alcohol and mental health program.

Corrections manager Jody Jacobsen described the services offered at the facility as “critical.”

“We bring in as much revenue and grants as we can, but there’s only so much that we can do and the balance that we don’t bring in lies on the county,” Jacobsen told commissioners.

Prosecuting attorney Mark Nichols said counties are “disproportionately burdened” under the state’s budget process.

“There are an increasing number of functions being handed down to counties without a corresponding revenue stream,” Nichols told commissioners.

“And so, unfortunately, the reality is that I think our constituents, our taxpayers, are put in the position and are going to be put in the increasing position of needing to pick and choose those services that are most important to them.”

Peach predicted that the state Legislature will take note of the imbalance when other counties go bankrupt.

Cities do not pay for juvenile justice services despite the fact that most offenders come from cities, Jones has said.

The Clallam County Juvenile and Family Services Department operates at an annual loss of between $1 million and $2 million.

In 2017, the department budgeted for $1.25 million in revenue and $3.14 million in expenses for a general fund burden of $1.89 million.

After the ballot language is finalized, a citizens committee will be formed to help promote the sales tax measure.

“I think it’s critically important that we have a strong program in Clallam County,” said Nichols, who prosecuted juvenile cases in King and Clallam counties earlier in his career.

“As I’ve oftentimes said, if we do our jobs right in the juvenile court arena, hopefully we never see folks in the adult court arena.”

Nichols said his office is drafting a memorandum to provide guidance to elected officials, department heads and county staff about how they can express their views on the tax proposal in ways that do not cross legal lines or “otherwise complicate the issue.”

County sheriffs, particularly those in nonpartisan counties such as Clallam, have “broad leeway” to speak their minds on tax proposals, Benedict said.

“As I indicated at the meeting of the Law and Justice Council, it’s going to get my full support,” Benedict said.

Rob Ollikainen is a reporter with the Olympic Peninsula News Group, which is composed of Sound Publishing newspapers Peninsula Daily News, Sequim Gazette and Forks Forum. He can be reached at 360-452-2345, ext. 56450, or at rollikainen@peninsuladailynews.com.