Benton County Citizen Advisory Committee Recommends Sales Tax Increase and Performance Audits

May 5, 2014

In my prior post I highlighted the details of Benton County Proposition 14-5, a proposal on the county's August ballot to increase the local sales tax rate by 0.3% raising approximately $9 million per year for public safety spending. The proposed sales tax increase came from the recommendations of a Citizen Advisory Committee that was created to study the county's public safety programs.

The Benton County Board of Commissioners established the Criminal Justice Sales Tax Citizen Advisory Committee to:

. . . analyze and review all aspects of the criminal justice system in Benton County, develop an understand of their roles and resources, and make a recommendation to the Benton County Board of Commissioners as to whether or not a Criminal Justice Sales tax, as authorized by RCW 82.14.450 should be submitted to the voters of Benton County for approval and, if so, whether the Sales Tax should be in the amount of 1/10, 2/10 or 3/10 of one percent.

The Citizen Advisory Committee met in 2012 and 2013 and issued its final report in June 2013.  The Committee recommended that:

. . . the Board of Commissioners place before the voters of Benton County a ballot measure for a criminal justice sales tax in the amount of 0.3%.

 Along with proposing a 0.3% sales tax increase the Committee said:

. . . no revenue from this measure should be used to supplant existing revenue in the general budget used for criminal justice purposes. In addition, the committee recommends the Commissioners implement performance audits so the public can be assured their tax dollars are spent on programs and services which truly have the desired impact on crime and the factors which contribute to crime.

According to David Sparks, County Administrator for the Benton County Commissioners’ Office, there isn’t any plan to use the new revenue from Proposition 14-5 for “replacing or supplanting with the general fund, however, the adult and juvenile drug court would be replacing lost grant funding, as well as the drug task force unit.”

 Among the findings of the Citizen Advisory Committee:

  • The number of sheriff deputies per 1,000 residents has been steadily rising since 1985 when it was 1.1. Currently it is 1.7 which is as high as it has ever been.

  • The violent crime rate was 3.31 per 1,000 in 1995 and 2.33 per 1,000 in 2011.

  • In general, the crime rates in Benton County have been trending downward for a number of years.

  • There has been a marked rise in gang-related criminal activity.

  • There is a serious gang presence emerging in Benton County and with it comes intra-gang violence and crimes committed to support the gang lifestyle.

  • Violent crime associated with gangs and drugs are increasing and investigating those crimes is costly.

  • The law enforcement agencies cannot take proactive measures because existing resources are committed to reactive responses.

In an earlier draft report the Citizen Advisory Committee recommended a 0.1% sales tax increase:

The committee recommends the Board of Commissioners place before the voters of Benton County a ballot measure for a criminal justice sales tax in the amount of 0.1%.

When I asked for explanation for why the Committee changed its draft recommendation from a 0.1% sales tax increase ($3 million a year) to 0.3% ($9 million a year) the Chair of Committee, Richard Nordgren, said:

The committee agreed to operate with a ‘one voice’ policy, namely that no member of the committee would speak publicly unless the committee had agreed to release information. Early drafts and the final report of the committee was shared with the Law and Justice Council and then with the county commissioners as these bodies had called the committee into existence. Based on that policy I must decline your request for comments on early work products.

One member of the Citizen Advisory Committee, Jerry Martin, however, told The Tri-City Herald:

Martin also said the citizens committee’s recommendation wasn’t based on data analysis and was unduly influenced by the county’s Law and Justice Council, which is comprised of criminal justice officials. Nordgren said the recommendation reflected the collective opinion of the advisory committee.

As voters consider Proposition 14-5 it would be helpful for the Citizen Advisory Committee to provide more information concerning the decision to change its recommendation from the draft to final report given the large difference in the proposed sales tax increase and this charge for the Committee when it was created:

The intent is for the Citizen’s Advisory Committee to run fully independent of the Law and Justice Council and/or any of the governmental entities represented on that Council.

Ultimately the Benton County Commissioners decided to put a 0.3% sales tax increase on the ballot though they had the power to propose a smaller tax increase.

In my next post I'll provide more details on the Citizen Advisory Committee's recommendation for performance audits and their status as well as highlight a comment from Washington State Auditor Troy Kelley about the importance of conducting performance audits.

Additional Information
Public safety sales tax increase on ballot in Benton County
Draft report of Citizen Committee

Final report of Citizen Committee

Summary of sales tax increase spending