County proposes tax hike to stave off cuts
September 21, 2010
Proposed increase to generate $500,000 for Issaquah
Deep cuts to the King County Sheriff’s Office budget could force the agency to shut down police storefronts — a popular crime-prevention tool in rural King County outside of Issaquah.
But the best bet to limit cuts to the sheriff’s office — a proposed sales tax increase dedicated to public safety — rankles Tom Carpenter, a resident and community leader in the Four Creeks Unincorporated Area between Issaquah and Renton.
“Why would you ever trade preventative for reactive?” he said.
The county has asked voters to raise the sales tax rate two-tenths of 1 percent, or 2 cents per $10. The measure on the Nov. 2 ballot aims to raise the sales tax from 9.5 percent to 9.7 percent in order to preserve sheriff’s deputies, county prosecutors, public defenders and court employees.
“If you forced me in a corner right now, I would probably vote in favor of it, but I’d do that only because the short-term condition needs to be dealt with,” Carpenter, a former president of the county-supported Four Creeks Unincorporated Area Council, said last week.
Underscoring the debate about the tax hike is a proposal offered last week by County Executive Dow Constantine.
The fallout if the tax measure should fail: $7.2 million in cuts to the sheriff’s office and layoffs of 28 deputies in rural areas. The proposal also eliminates police storefronts, school resource officers, and tasks forces dedicated to drugs and gangs.
Windfall for cities
But the potential cuts could disappear in a last-minute budget rewrite if voters approve the tax increase. King County Council members do not approve a budget until mid- to late November.
Officials estimate the added tax could raise $35 million next year and $48 million in 2012, the first full year of collection.
Under the proposal, more than 75 percent of the revenue must be used for criminal justice and public safety. The provision is due to expire after three years, unless extended by voters.
The measure also directs dollars for construction at the aging county Youth Services Center in Seattle.
The county stands to receive 60 percent of the money. The proposal calls for the 39 cities in the county to receive the other 40 percent in amounts based on population.
In Issaquah, the portion amounts to about $500,000. Issaquah and the other cities must spend one-third of the amount on criminal justice services as part of the agreement.
“It is not something that we are factoring into our budget process,” Issaquah Mayor Ava Frisinger said. “We can’t factor in things that may or may not happen that are dependent upon a public vote.”
Sheriff Sue Rahr, Prosecutor Dan Satterberg, District Court Presiding Judge Barbara Linde and Superior Court Presiding Judge Bruce Hilyer backed the tax measure as a way to diminish cuts.
King County faces a $60 million shortfall in 2011 in the budget used to fund criminal justice services. The gap could balloon to more than $80 million next year.
‘Hell no’ from residents
Constantine plans to unveil a budget proposal Sept. 27. In addition to the potential reductions to the sheriff’s office, Constantine has proposed deep cuts to all tax-supported county agencies.
In courthouses, budget cuts could mean fewer prosecutors and public defenders, fewer court employees, more time before cases go to trial, fewer cases reaching trial, and longer waits for court records and to even enter courthouses.
“It threatens the whole administration of the criminal justice system,” Hilyer said.
Issaquah-area County Councilwoman Kathy Lambert said she doubts the tax measure will pass, based on conversations with voters.
“It was a pretty overwhelming ‘no,’ bordering on ‘hell no,’” she said.
King County Council members spent months debating sales tax proposals and then, in a split decision, put the measure on the November ballot.
Lambert joined Republican council members Jane Hague, Pete von Reichbauer and Reagan Dunn, the other Issaquah-area representative, to vote against putting the measure on the ballot.
(Though voters made the council nonpartisan in 2008, members continue to caucus along partisan lines on many issues.)
“The economy’s hurting so bad that people don’t have money to pay any extra in taxes,” Lambert said.
Lew Mandell, a University of Washington economics professor, said a higher sales tax likely will not make a direct impact on consumers’ purchasing power, but the hike could have a negative psychological effect on spending.
“At close to 10 percent, the sales tax is one of the highest in the country,” Mandell said. “The disparity is already there — this just adds to it.”
‘Where can you cut?’
Lambert said the council has protected criminal justice from budget cuts as much as possible, but now the burden shifts to the agencies to save money.
“At this point, it’s their turn to be looked at and ask where can you cut?” she said.
Hilyer said the court system has offset threatened budget cuts by increasing fees. In effect, money for the courts from the general fund decreased by about 12 percent in the past two years, he said.
Both sides said rising labor costs aggravate the budget situation.
Constantine has opened talks with 59 unions representing county employees, and asked them to defer guaranteed cost-of-living increases next year. So far, three unions agreed — including the union representing almost 500 District Court clerks, hazardous-waste workers, custodians and juvenile detention supervisors.
But labor reform cannot be implemented before the current budget shortfall is handled, Hilyer said.
The county must also contend with the state’s 1 percent cap on property tax increases.
“We can’t keep pace with inflation because of that, but our expenses keep going up beyond the rate of inflation,” Councilwoman Julia Patterson said.
Paul Guppy, vice-president of the Washington Policy Center free-market think tank, said bad labor policies and bad budget prioritizing contributed to the current crisis.
The county directs money to lower-priority programs and salary increases rather than first fully funding criminal justice, he said.
Elected officials disagreed and said, after several years of painful cuts, only essential programs remain.
“I don’t think that legally we can do away with the elections office or the executive branch or the assessor’s office,” Patterson said.
By the numbers
King County sales tax
Consumers pay 9.5 cents in sales tax on a $1 purchase in King County.
- 6.5 cents: state general fund
- 1 cent: county and cities basic fund
- Nine-tenths of a cent: King County Metro Transit
- Nine-tenths of a cent: Sound Transit
- One-tenth of a cent: criminal justice for the county and cities
- One-tenth of a cent: county services for mental health and drug dependency
The proposed sales tax increase to fund criminal justice services would raise the total to 9.7 cents per $1 purchase.
In restaurants and bars, people pay another half-cent for Safeco Field construction.
Source: state Department of Revenue
Dan Catchpole: 392-6434, ext. 246, or firstname.lastname@example.org. Warren Kagarise: 392-6434, ext. 234, or email@example.com. Comment at www.issaquahpress.com.