Resources for Benton County Proposition 14-5: Public Safety Sales Tax Increase

July 16, 2014

Ballots are starting to arrive in Benton County for the August 5 primary. One measure voters will be considering is Proposition 14-5, a proposal to increase the local sales tax rate by 0.3 percent and collect approximately $9 million per year for increased public safety spending.

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.

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. Benton County and city officials have been discussing performance audits in relation to Proposition 14-5 but no formal decision has been made.

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.

Updated 7/21

The Tri-City Herald reports Benton County is considering performance audits:

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.

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
Crime stats

Law enforcement staffing history 

MRSC: Performance Audits and Performance Reporting