(The Center Square) – A majority of Spokane City Council members have formally opposed a Nov. 7 ballot measure that calls for raising Spokane County’s local sales-and-use tax to provide additional criminal justice funding to the county and its cities and towns with police departments.
In a 5-2 vote Monday, the council okayed a resolution in opposition to the funding proposal, called Measure 1, which Spokane County commissioners agreed to put up for public vote.
The city council’s vote is symbolic and non-binding. Spokane voters will have the final say when casting their election ballots.
As proposed, Measure No. 1 calls for a two-tenths of 1% increase in the countywide sales tax – that is, 2 cents more on every $10 purchase – over 30 years to raise revenue for criminal justice, public safety, and behavioral health purposes.
If approved, the sales tax increase would go into effect later next year. Cities and towns would get 40% and the county would receive 60% of the revenue, estimated at $31 million in 2025 and growing to $95 million by 2054 – an estimated total of $1.7 billion.
Of its share, the county says it wants to construct a new jail facility to house up to 986 minimum to medium-security inmates and absorb inmates from the closing of the Geiger Corrections Facility. The county also plans to build a new community corrections facility housing up to 128 minimum-security inmates with space for “work-around” services such as drug and alcohol treatment, mental health counseling, family services, job skills and more. The cost has been estimated around $300 million.
City councilmembers Betsy Wilkerson and Zack Zappone introduced Monday’s opposition resolution, which was backed by Lori Kinnear, Ryan Oelrich and Karen Stratton. Councilmembers Jonathan Bingle and Michael Cathcart voted against the measure.
The resolution says the city council acknowledges that current jail facilities are inadequate, but claims the county’s proposal lacks specifics beyond construction of a new jail. It asks for the county to defer the ballot measure until a more comprehensive plan is developed.
Stratton and Zappone spoke of the need for “wrap-around services” for inmates, and the city resolution calls for expansion of “therapeutic courts” such as drug courts, expansion of a crisis stabilization center, more courtroom capacity to expedite case processing, more mental health responders, a “court rides” program, and “re-entry support” for those released from custody.
“We need better services,” said Stratton.
Zappone agreed and said the county had not addressed such issues as jail location or additional staffing if inmate capacity is increased.
Zappone called Measure 1 “a $1 billion blank check for the county” that places an additional tax burden on citizens and businesses.
Bingle disputed that, calling the blank check comment “unfair.”
“There are specific uses for these dollars,” said Bingle, noting that city officials have known for months about the county’s proposal and that county officials have conducted multiple outreach efforts to share information with the community.
Bingle said passage of Measure 1 would generate an estimated $7 million or more annually for the city that could be used to make significant investments in public safety and address current “budget gaps” which, if unfilled, could result in future reductions in service.
He also disputed comments made by some members of the public that the jail is filled with low-level offenders, the homeless, or innocent people wrongly accused of crimes.
“Eighty people in the jail are murderers,” said Bingle. “… we’re talking violent offenders, we’re talking (domestic violence), we’re talking assault, we’re talking murder, we’re talking rape, we’re talking serious crimes that have been committed, and we don’t have enough capacity to hold those (defendants).
“Evil in this world exists,” he continued, “and if that is the case, there must be a way for the community to deal with the idea, ‘What do we do with an evil person?’… if we get rid of the jails, what do we do?
Cathcart said making improvements in criminal justice and public safety systems require revenue, “plain and simple.” He felt that passage of Measure 1 is the best way to address those pressing needs immediately while equitably sharing the cost.
“Our share of the dollars would allow us to start to address the failings here in the city, create partnerships to advance, and make our community a lot safer with more accountability and improve the outcome,” Cathcart said.
And, he noted, “At the end of the day, the voters are going to have their say … they’re the ones that will make the decision. Doesn’t matter what this council does tonight.”