Next steps for Benton County public safety sales tax

August 6, 2014

The third time was the charm for the Benton County public safety sales tax increase. After voters rejected a 0.2% increase in 2007 and 2008 they are giving approval to Proposition 14-5 (0.3% increase). Now that the voters have given their trust to elected officials it is time for these leaders to come through on their promise to enact performance audits to ensure the new resources are efficiently and effectively spent to deliver on the important public safety goals.

 From the Tri-City Herald on July 18:

They also say officials will keep close tabs on the sales tax revenue, with each agency reporting to the public on how it's spent. And there's consensus among county officials to implement performance audits, with details of exactly how they would work to be fleshed out.

I’ve been in contact with county and city officials over the summer encouraging them to implement the recommendation of the independent Citizen Advisory Committee for performance audits. Here was my last pitch to them:

The key to a good performance audit is the structural independence of the Auditor from the program being reviewed and strict adherence to GAO Yellow Book Standards to ensure audit quality. Because a performance audit is very different than a compliance/financial audit it may be best in the short term to go with the State Auditor since they have performance audit expertise. It took several years after I-900 was approved for SAO to get the performance audit program structure effectively – I bring this up only to caution that you’d want to check with the Benton County Auditor’s Office to see if they believe they have the expertise needed to take this on at this time. I believe the Franklin County Auditor recently issued an RFP for a performance/forensic audit of the TRAC facility . . .

Since this would likely be a County request versus initiated by the State Auditor the scope of the review could be set by the County. Not having been a part of the Citizen Advisory Committee process I don’t know what type of scope they had in mind (pre-budget or post-implementation). One potential scope could be used to identify the current structure of the criminal justice system and options for program reorganization to best take advantage of the new resources to achieve the stated goals (gang-prevention, mental health, etc). Another scope could focus on the performance benchmarks necessary to evaluate success at regular interviews during the 10 year period of the tax to show the value for the investments or identify opportunities to change strategies/spending priorities within the new revenue stream.

Whether pre-budget or post-implementation, either would provide added value and an independent assessment of the spending and impact of the increased revenue. Another potential option would be to pitch the State Auditor on a performance audit that would treat Benton County as a test case for the rest of the state for gang-prevention/mental health and how programs can best be structured to achieve the highest return on investment.

As noted by State Auditor Troy 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.

The voters have done their part with approval of Proposition 14-5. Now it is time for elected officials to follow through on their promise for performance audits.

Additional Information
Citizens' Guide to Benton County Proposition 14-5 to raise the sales tax to expand public safety programs