Public safety sales tax increase on ballot in Benton County

April 14, 2014

In August voters in Benton County will consider Proposition 14-5 and whether to increase the local sales tax rate by 0.3% raising approximately $9 million per year for public safety spending. The tax increase would sunset on December 31, 2024. The proposal would increase the total sales tax paid by a family at the county’s median income ($64,898) by $87 a year, or $7.25 a month. The revenue would be split between Benton County and the cities of Kennewick, Richland, West Richland, and Prosser for law enforcement staffing increases and various public safety programs (such as gang prevention and intervention).

If approved by voters the combined sales tax rate in Benton County would increase from 8.3% to 8.6% tied for third highest in Eastern Washington. The highest combined sales tax rate in the state is Mill Creek at 9.6%. Several cities in King and Snohomish Counties are at 9.5%

According to the ballot description for Proposition 14-5:

The Benton County Board of Commissioners adopted Resolution No. 2014-25 that seeks to improve public safety including combating criminal gangs. This proposition would fund the hiring of additional police officers, corrections officers, and prosecutors; fund the Metro Drug Task Force and gang and crime prevention efforts; and fund court and clerk programs including a seventh Superior Court Judge and drug and mental health courts, by imposing a sales and use tax equal to three-tenths of one percent (three cents on a ten dollar purchase) with the tax expiring December 31, 2024.

When voting to forward this proposal to the ballot for voters to consider, Benton County Commissioners cited these reasons (among others):

  • Criminal activity in Benton County has increased in both sophistication and complexity in recent years, requiring a substantially greater investment of time and resources by the local criminal justice system.

  • A significant portion of the crimes committed in Benton County are committed by persons with drug, alcohol and/or mental problems, or who are involved in criminal gang activity or lifestyle.

  • Benton County has learned from the experience of its drug court and the experiences of other jurisdictions with their mental health courts that such programs can reduce recidivism.

  • Approximately 79 percent of the County’s general fund budget, which are the funds that over which the County has discretionary control, go to law enforcement and other criminal justice related services.

  • The Board of County Commissioners have received reports from a volunteer Citizen’s Advisory Committee indicating that there is a need for additional funding for the law and justice system within Benton County.

  • The Benton County Sheriff and Prosecuting Attorney, the Benton County Superior Court Administrator, the Benton County Clerk, and the police chiefs from each city within the County have all recommended that the Board call for an election on the imposition of the tax referenced herein.

If approved by voters Proposition 14-5 would generate an estimated $9 million a year for public safety spending. Benton County would receive approximately 60% of the funds with the rest distributed among the cities on population basis. According to a Benton County Law and Justice Council handout, if Proposition 14-5 is enacted Kennewick would be able to hire 15 new police officers, Richland 6 and West Richland 3 (additional support staff as well).

Benton County would be able to make staffing additions across the county’s criminal justice system including a new Superior Court Judge, 7 new sheriff officers, new prosecutors and continue to fund the metro drug task force. There would also be an estimated $368 thousand reserve fund “for consideration of additional criminal justice programs.” This reserve would equal approximately 4% of the $9 million raised.

Proposition 14-5 is not the first time Benton County voters have been asked to approve a public safety or criminal justice sales tax. In 1995, voters approved a 0.1% criminal justice sales tax which remains in effect today. According to the state Department of Revenue (DOR), that tax brought in nearly $3.6 million for Benton County in 2013.

Benton County voters were also asked in 2007 and 2008 to approve a public safety sales tax increase of 0.2%. Those measures failed with 58% voting no in 2008 and 53% voting no in 2007. By forwarding Proposition 14-5 to the ballot, County Commissioners are hoping that this sentiment has changed and voters would now approve an even higher public safety sales tax increase proposal of 0.3%.

Local governments have two different sales tax options to increase funding for public safety related spending. The first option is a criminal justice sales tax (RCW 82.14.340). Most counties in the state currently have enacted this tax of 0.1%, including Benton County. The second option is a public safety sales tax (RCW 82.14.450). According to DOR, 15 counties in the state have enacted this tax with nine at the rate of 0.1% and six at the maximum rate of 0.3%.

Counties Charging a Public Safety Sales Tax (RCW 82.14.450)

0.1% rate

0.3% rate

Clallam

Franklin

Cowlitz

Jefferson

Mason

Kittitas

Okanogan

San Juan

Skagit

Walla Walla

Snohomish

Yakima

Spokane

 

Thurston

 

Whatcom

 

As previously noted, if approved by Benton County voters Proposition 14-5 would raise the combined sales tax rate in the county from 8.3% to 8.6%. This would be tied for the third highest sales tax rate in Eastern Washington. The highest combined sales tax rate in the state is Mill Creek at 9.6%. Several cities in King and Snohomish Counties are at 9.5%.

Select Eastern Washington Sales Tax Rates

Walla Walla (city)

8.9%

Spokane (city)

8.7%

Pasco

8.6%

Benton County - proposed

8.6%

Wenatchee

8.4%

Benton County – current

8.3%

Yakima (city)

8.2%

East Wenatchee

8.2%

Ellensburg

8.0%

Moses Lake

7.9%

Pullman

7.8%

The proposal would increase the total sales tax paid by a family at the county’s median income ($64,898) by $87 a year, or $7.25 a month. For a hypothetical $50 purchase the current sales tax owed at 8.3% is $4.15. That same purchase under an 8.6% sales tax rate would have $4.30 in tax owed.

In my next post I'll breakdown the recommendations of the Citizen Advisory Committee concerning this proposed sales tax increase for public safety.