Benton County Proposition 14-5: Sales tax increase but no performance audits?

May 6, 2014

My prior posts discussing Benton County Proposition 14-5 (0.3% sales tax increase for public safety spending) looked at the details of the proposal along with the recommendations of a Citizen Advisory Committee that was created to study the county's public safety programs. Along with proposing the 0.3% sales tax increase that was placed on the August ballot, the Citizen Advisory Committee also recommended Benton County pursue performance audits saying:

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.

Despite the Citizen Advisory Committee tying these recommendations together, no performance audits have been scheduled or are tied to the approval of Proposition 14-5.

According to David Sparks, County Administrator for the Benton County Commissioners’ Office, “The performance audit was a recommendation and the Commissioners have not made a decision on this topic. I think the Board will wait and see if the sales tax passes or not.”

Brenda Chilton, Benton County Auditor, confirmed that no performance audits are currently scheduled saying, “I am unaware of any performance audits being performed.”

Since statewide voters approved Initiative 900 in 2005 providing the Washington State Auditor the authority to conduct independent performance audits, significant taxpayer savings and government efficiencies have been achieved. According to the State Auditor’s Office:

Over our four-year tracking period, public agencies reported implementing about 84 percent of our recommendations and saving almost $780 million. Since performance audits began, agencies have collectively saved nearly $1 billion as a result of our work.

Though not directly commenting on Proposition 14-5 or the recommendations of the Citizen Advisory Committee, Washington State Auditor Troy Kelley believes performance audits are a valuable tool for local governments. According to Kelley:

Performance audits, when done right, can provide lessons of sound performance management to local governments across our state. They can help local leaders evaluate their programs and improve services using data-driven tools and techniques. Simply put, the rigorous evaluation provided by a sound performance audit can make government better.

According to the state Municipal Research and Services Center, performance audits are currently part of the local governance accountability structure for Clark County, King County, Pierce County, Snohomish County and the cities of Seattle, Tacoma and Vancouver.

As for Benton County, by only agreeing to increase the sales tax as proposed by the Citizen Advisory Committee but not also approving the recommended performance audits, the County may be sending the wrong message to voters as they consider Proposition 14-5. To help clearly communicate the County’s commitment to ensure dollars raised from the sales tax increase are efficiently and effectively spent to improve public safety, the County could agree prior to the election to pursue performance audits as proposed by the Citizen Advisory Committee. The County could earmark a small percentage of the estimated 4% reserve fund for performance audits if the tax is approved.

Having spent time reviewing the details of Proposition 14-5 and the Citizen Advisory Committee’s recommendations, here are my concluding thoughts on the decision facing voters. Although law enforcement staffing and the crime rate have held steady over the past decade, gang activity is on the rise and is commanding more of the existing resources and time available for other public safety needs. The approval of Proposition 14-5 would provide significant increases in spending on public safety programs. This has the potential to allow law enforcement to focus more on proactive crime fighting and to get ahead of the growing gang activity.

While the decision to include a 10-year sunset of the 0.3% sales tax increase is commendable, the failure of the County to implement the Citizen Advisory Committee’s additional recommendation for performance audits may be sending the wrong message to voters as they consider Proposition 14-5. Promising to use a small percentage of the estimated 4% reserve fund for performance audits would go a long way to communicating the County’s commitment to being strong stewards of any additional tax resources for public safety that the voters approve.

It is also concerning that no explanation was given by the Citizen Advisory Committee for radically jumping from a recommended 0.1% ($3 million a year) to 0.3% ($9 million a year) between its draft and final report. Additional details would help provide voters more context on why the independent Citizen Advisory Committee made this decision. Ultimately the final authority to propose a 0.3% or smaller sales tax increase was the responsibility of the Benton County Commissioners.

Providing for public safety is the highest priority for government. In weighing Proposition 14-5, voters will need to determine whether the case has been made for moving from an 8.3% sales tax rate to 8.6%, among the highest in Eastern Washington, and the impact this increase would have on future efforts to raise taxes in the cities, county, and area public facility districts. Voters will also have to consider whether enough accountability (like performance audits) has been built into the proposal to evaluate the impact the tax increase would have on actually improving public safety, as supporters promise.

Here are the Key Findings of our study reviewing Proposition 14-5:

  1. Proposition 14-5 would increase the local sales tax rate by 0.3 percent and collect approximately $9 million per year for increased public safety spending.

  2. Unless extended, the sales tax increase would end on December 31, 2024.

  3. Proposition 14-5 would increase the total sales tax paid by a family at the county’s median income by $87 per year.

  4. If approved, the combined sales tax rate in Benton County would increase from 8.3 percent to 8.6 percent, tied for the third highest sales tax rate in Eastern Washington.

  5. Along with proposing the 0.3 percent sales tax increase, a Citizen Advisory Committee also recommended Benton County implement performance audits.

  6. Despite tying these recommendations together, no performance audits have been scheduled or are tied to the approval of Proposition 14-5.

  7. Although law enforcement staffing and the crime rate have held steady over the past decade, gang activity is on the rise and is commanding more of the existing resources and time available for other public safety needs.

Additional Information
Citizen’s Guide to Benton County Proposition 14-5 to raise the sales tax to expand public safety programs
Draft report of Citizen Advisory Committee
Final report of Citizen Advisory Committee

Summary of proposed sales tax increase spending

MRSC: Performance Audits and Performance Reporting