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Property tax eyed to fund Island County's law, justice departments

By JUSTIN BURNETT
South Whidbey Record Editor
April 21, 2013 · Updated 10:15 AM
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Island County Prosecutor Greg Banks addresses commissioners last week about the shortcomings in the justice system that have resulted from budget reductions. He and Island County Sheriff Mark Brown, right, want the board to support a fall ballot measure that would seek millions for law and justice funding. / Justin Burnett / The Record

Increasingly desperate law and justice leaders are again lobbying the Island County commissioners to sign off on a proposal that may seek more than $2.6 million, possibly in the form of property taxes, from voters this fall.

During a presentation to the board last week, a panel of law and justice officials led by Island County Prosecutor Greg Banks laid out their case with a litany of service shortfalls, from overburdened attorneys to officer safety issues and delayed response times.

Banks described law and justice in the county as “woefully underfunded,” saying things are being held together by a thread but that the consensus among leaders is that the system is in the process of “unraveling.”

“I feel like we’re one big fish away from the line snapping,” Banks said.

Changes in the economy have forced the commissioners to cut about $6 million from the budget over the past five years. Although law and justice, a category that includes police, courts and the prosecutor’s office, still receives over 55 percent of the general fund, the reductions have hit the departments hard.

Jail operations hit

The jail, which is under the umbrella of the Island County Sheriff’s Office, is no exception. Administrator De Dennis spelled out the problems facing his facility during the commissioners’ annual tour of the jail Monday afternoon.

Low staffing and all the headaches that follow, such as overtime costs, officer burnout and security requirements associated with big court cases, are the biggest problem facing the facility, he said.

“My lieutenants are saying, ‘De, we can’t do this much longer,’” Dennis said. Justin Burnett / The Record | Island County Jail Administrator De Dennis leads Island County commissioners on a tour of the jail.

“I’m really concerned how much longer I can go on,” he said.

Additional corrections officers are just the tip of the list. He also cited the need for new computers, software upgrades, video-courtroom equipment and a new fingerprint identification system.

Sheriff Mark Brown called the situation at the jail an “ongoing organizational nightmare” and credited Dennis with holding the operation together despite his limited resources.

Last June, the Island County Law and Justice Council recommended the board move forward with a ballot measure that would increase sales tax by three-tenths of 1 percent, generating about $2.2 million per year.

The board was unwilling to support the request at the time, citing a host of issues. There was discussion about whether or not a property tax would be more appropriate and others worried there was insufficient time to prepare for a successful fall ballot measure.

The delay ensured that the law and justice community would not get financial relief for more than a year because funding from a successful ballot measure doesn’t start to flow in until the following year.

That means that if the board doesn’t put the issue before voters this fall, a 2014 ballot approved by the public would not result in additional funding until 2015. Timeliness is an issue and a serious discussion needs to begin soon, said Banks, during the recent presentation to the commissioners.

“What the Law and Justice Council really needs to know is where the board is on this issue,” Banks said.

Banks confirmed that the council has yet to make another formal recommendation to the board and that any decision would likely be different from the one in 2012.

Property tax pushed

First and foremost, it would probably propose a property tax as opposed to a sales tax, he said. A sales tax would not raise enough money and what funds would be raised would need to be shared with neighboring municipalities.

Banks said the funding needed is about $2.6 million. Most would go to the Sheriff’s Office to hire additional police and corrections officers, costing about $2.3 million, while the rest would be split among the prosecutor’s office and the courts.

According to Banks, the council’s co-chairman, the group would also likely propose a sunset of three to five years. That would give the public the chance to reconsider and allow the board to easily and permanently dispense with the tax should the county’s financial situation improve significantly.

But voters have to be given the option of approving or rejecting a measure first, and that can only happen if the commissioners give the green light. And according to Banks, the clock is ticking.

“If they are going to take action, it needs to be soon,” Banks said.

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