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Council gives nod to law, justice tax in Island County

Island County Prosecutor Greg Banks speaks during a Law and Justice Council budget meeting. The council, which includes members of the court and sheriff’s office, went forward with its recommendation for a $2.6 million ballot measure this fall. Law and justice leaders in the county hope the added revenue will improve staffing levels.  - Justin Burnett / The Record
Island County Prosecutor Greg Banks speaks during a Law and Justice Council budget meeting. The council, which includes members of the court and sheriff’s office, went forward with its recommendation for a $2.6 million ballot measure this fall. Law and justice leaders in the county hope the added revenue will improve staffing levels.
— image credit: Justin Burnett / The Record

The Island County Law and Justice Council formalized its hopes for a $2.6 million fall ballot measure last week when the group unanimously approved a recommendation to move forward with the proposal.

The council, an advisory group comprised of police, court, municipal leaders and community members from Whidbey and Camano islands, agreed it was time to proceed with the property tax and passed a resolution urging the Island County commissioners to formally green light the proposal.

Island County Prosecutor Greg Banks, in an interview following the decision, said there is still a lot of work to be done but that he was happy the council was able to reach a consensus and take the next step on the long debated tax measure.

“I’m encouraged it’s progressing and I think what we put together is good,” Banks said.

The resolution was not available for this story as the document was still being fine-tuned for submission to the board but the essence is a request to seek $2.6 million from voters this year, either on the August primary or the November general election ballot.

Banks said the total amount may be somewhat less to account for immediate revenue needs. For example, the proposed tax is designed to pay for a slew of new sheriff’s deputies but not all would be hired at once, which means less money would be needed during the first year, he said.

With a recommendation now firmly in the hands of the board, the commissioners are now the last stop before a measure can appear on the ballot. Two commissioners have pledged limited, or conditional, support.

Commissioner Jill Johnson, who campaigned on a slate of priority funding for law and justice, said this has been her “number one priority” but that there is an internal hiccup that needs to be resolved.

Sheriff’s deputies have been working without a contract for years and negotiations with the guild are ongoing, she said.

“I want that resolved before we go out and ask voters for money,” Johnson said.

Commissioner Helen Price Johnson also has a base she wants covered. She said she believes there is an urgent need but that she learned a clear lesson from the failure of Proposition 1 in 2010.

It lacked support because it was not clear in where the money would be spent, and Price Johnson said she doesn’t want to make the same mistake twice. Voters want specifics, she said.

“If you’re asking them to reach into their wallets, they need to know what services will be provided,” she said.

Of the three commissioners, Chairwoman Kelly Emerson appears to be the only one who will not support a ballot measure. Although she’s been an advocate for law and justice funding, she’s maintained it can be achieved with money from the existing budget.

She has never provided specifics about where the money might be found or what departments could see their budget cuts, but she said in an interview earlier in the month that she’s eager to discuss the matter with her colleagues.

“I would very much like to see us have that conversation before we ask for more money from folks,” Emerson said.

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