(The Center Square) – Two ballot measures loom large for Spokane voters in the upcoming Nov. 7 general election.
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 – beginning next April and continuing over 30 years. There is an exemption on motor vehicle sales and leases. If enacted, the measure over time will raise an estimated $1.7 billion for criminal justice, public safety, and behavioral health purposes. Voters across Spokane County will see Measure 1 on their ballots, which are being mailed out later this week.
Another initiative, Proposition No. 1, seeks to ban homeless encampments near schools, parks, playgrounds, and childcare facilities within Spokane City limits. Only Spokane voters within city limits will decide this proposal.
Both Measure 1 and Proposition 1 need simple-majority votes (50% plus one vote) for passage.
Last December, Spokane County commissioners adopted a resolution calling for a public vote on Measure 1, citing a rapidly growing population, increased crime, and aging correctional facilities.
If approved, the county would receive 60% of annual revenue generated by the sales-tax hike while the remaining 40% would be proportionately shared with cities and towns based on population. Of those 13 communities, most of the non-county allocation would go to the city of Spokane (23.8%) and the city of Spokane Valley (11%).
Among other uses, revenue could be used for more police officers, equipment and training along with enhanced collaboration with other first responders to behavioral health calls.
With its share, the county says it also wants to modernize and expand its downtown Spokane jail – which officials say is nearly 40 years old and currently overcrowded on average by 110 inmates – in part to absorb inmate population from the pending closure of the Geiger Correctional Center, originally built in 1953 as a military barracks.
According to county information, the downtown expansion would include a facility housing up to 768 minimum-to-medium security inmates by 2028 and a minimum security “community corrections/law-and-justice center” with up to 128 inmates. The center would also contain more courtrooms and provide services such as drug and alcohol treatment, mental health counseling, family services, GED preparation, job skills and more. The overall cost has been estimated around $300 million.
Measure 1 has generated plenty of debate. Spokane County commissioners themselves are divided. In a symbolic vote earlier this month, Republican commissioners Al French, Josh Kerns and Mary Kuney endorsed the measure. The commission’s two Democrats, Amber Waldref and Chris Jordan, remained opposed after seeking earlier this year to have it removed from the ballot.
A divided Spokane City Council also recently opposed the measure in a symbolic 5-2 vote. Among criticisms, the majority said it lacked specifics about how money would be spent, calling it a “blank check” to the county. Two councilmen supporting the measure said improvements to correctional facilities are sorely needed now and they disputed claims that the majority of jailed inmates are innocent or low-level offenders who should not be incarcerated.
Similarly divisive, Proposition 1 has been spearheaded by Spokane attorney Brian Hansen and city councilman Jonathan Bingle. In a statement in the local voters’ guide, the proposition is described as “a step in the right direction to help reduce the dangerous, dirty, and disruptive behavior inherent in homeless encampments around areas where our children learn, play, and grow.”
If enacted, the proposition would amend Spokane’s municipal code to prohibit unauthorized encampments – including storage of personal property or paraphernalia – within 1,000 feet of any public or private school, public park, playground, or licensed daycare facility. The measure would expand current city code which bans camping within 50 feet of any railroad viaduct with Spokane’s downtown police precinct and within three blocks of any congregate shelter.
Supporters of the proposition say homeless encampments foster problems with illegal drug sales and use that included discarded hypodermic needles, indecent exposure, various violent crimes, and high volumes of trash, all while costing taxpayer resources for policing and cleanup efforts.
Opponents believe the proposition is “fear-mongering” and unfairly targets disadvantaged and homeless persons who aren’t criminals or breaking any laws.
Terri Anderson, Spokane director of the advocacy group Tenants Union of Washington, said an opposition statement narrowly missed a deadline for inclusion into the local voters’ guide. The document questions the constitutionality of the proposition, saying it could face a costly court challenge if enacted and result in “(tying) the hands of the city and the entire region.”
Prohibiting camping from nearly all public spaces will put vulnerable persons at risk of police sweeps and incarceration, create more barriers to escaping homelessness, and push affected populations “into neighborhoods that do not have the capacity to assist them,” the statement says. “The unintended consequence … means that encampments …will look more like Camp Hope because of the limited space where they are allowed.”