By Noah Haglund <I>Herald Writer</I>
EVERETT — A new proposal to raise Snohomish County property taxes over the next two years aims to stanch staffing cuts, particularly in public safety, and to overhaul an obsolete courthouse complex.
The plan, submitted last week by County Councilman Dave Gossett, also would restore funding for new programs to treat drug addiction and mental illness. It’s part of the ongoing work to draft the county’s 2013 budget.
The plan calls for a 3 percent increase in the county’s general property tax levy. It would cost the average homeowner an estimated $6.70 extra in 2013, and increase again by the same amount in 2014. That adds up to a little more than a buck a month when fully in place.
“We have been very, very conservative with our use of general fund property tax,” Gossett said. “If this were to pass, if you look around Washington, 75 percent of people live in counties where they’ve increased taxes more than this.”
Snohomish County government has lost about 400 positions since the 2008 economic downturn and now has fewer than 2,700 positions. Gossett’s plan isn’t about getting those jobs back; it’s about paying for those that are already there, on paper, but unfunded.
“This isn’t cosmetic surgery to make us pretty again,” said Prosecuting Attorney Mark Roe, who strongly supports the idea.
“I’ve been told that I’m a poor politician and I’m going to prove it now by saying ‘Please raise my taxes,’” Roe added.
The plan would apply equally to all county departments, but would have a big effect on public safety and the courts, which account for more than 70 percent of the county operating budget.
Other elected leaders responsible for running the criminal justice system admitted that raising taxes isn’t popular, but they said it’s necessary.
“For the average homeowner, it’s really a very nominal dollar amount, but it will have such tremendous positive impact on the services we are providing to citizens,” clerk Sonya Kraski said.
Sheriff John Lovick commended Gossett “for stepping up and showing some bold leadership.”
Snohomish County has not increased property taxes for the general fund since 2003. It lowered taxes in 2008. During that time, inflation has risen about 25 percent.
Counties have the authority to increase property taxes by 1 percent per year. The law also allows counties to take some of the increases they didn’t use in past years.
Gossett’s plan covers three areas: staffing, public safety buildings and programs for the mentally ill and addicted.
It addresses staffing by doing away with a policy that requires county departments to keep positions vacant. That policy is known by the wonky name of “attrition reduction management.”
While County Executive Aaron Reardon’s proposed budget avoids layoffs, it increases the attrition program by 25 percent and assumes it will continue.
That would have the effect, in 2013, of giving the sheriff’s office 21 positions on paper without the money to fill them.
That’s bound to slow down 911 response times, delay criminal investigations and increase overtime spending, officials say. At the jail, overtime costs exceed the prices of hiring extra deputies to cover shifts.
“On paper it’s saving. In the real world, it’s costing people money,” Gossett said.
Snohomish County Superior Court oversees more than 200 employees. They include judges and their support staff as well as Denney Juvenile Justice Center operations, including detention staff, probation officers and administrators there.
“We’re at the point now where we’re operating on the fine edge of what we can do,” Presiding Judge Michael Downes said.
Sheriff Lovick said targeted enforcement efforts, such as the county task force focusing on auto theft, have proven effective for lowering specific types of crime. He’d like to assign deputies to combat burglaries, but lacks the staff.
“Burglaries are on the rise in our county and it’s getting frustrating,” Lovick said. “If we had the manpower to target that crime, we could have an impact.”
Roe said some property-crime victims now may wait up to a year before a deputy prosecutor can review their case. That’s because he’s trying to focus on violent crime and sex abuse — “the things that hurt people, that kill people.”
The second part of Gossett’s tax plan aims to rehab the courthouse building and adjacent 1910 Mission building.
The last major addition was in 1967, when the county had only about a third of its current population and a quarter the number of judges and commissioners. The building’s problems include poor air circulation, outdated wiring, bad plumbing and elevators that are so old, no replacement parts are available. Past studies have shown that the building is too small, unsafe in an earthquake and fails to provide adequate separation between the general public and criminal suspects.
“It is a disgraceful facility,” Lovick said.
People in wheelchairs often have to be brought to the fifth floor to use accessible bathrooms, Downes said, and that could be a big problem when the elevators fail.
Roe said they’re asking victims, jurors and the general public to walk into an environment where they might be forced to mingle with defendants in criminal cases or sex offenders required to report for registration.
“We’re throwing them in this blender of an antiquated courthouse and expecting nothing bad to happen,” Roe said.
On the third flood, where Judge Tam Bui presides over District Court cases, mediation conferences often take place in hallways, as defendants, jurors and others mill around, within earshot.
“There are certain expectations of the public,” Bui said. “When they go into the system to file their small claims case, they shouldn’t be exposed to that.”
Upgrading the judicial complex has been under discussion for years. When a working group looked at the issue earlier this year, it came up with an unfunded proposal with a price tag of $110 million.
Gossett’s courthouse plan is more modest at $68 million. It calls for a new three-story building plus a major renovation of the existing courthouse and Mission Building. An additional four stories could be added to the three-story building in the future.
The tax increase would pay for more than half of those building projects but the rest of the money would come from future county revenues.
Another part of the plan is a new Sheriff’s Office south precinct building at the county’s Cathcart property, south of Snohomish near Highway 9. The sheriff said his deputies would be better positioned to respond to calls there than they are at their new facility in Mill Creek.
The third part of Gossett’s plan puts back all of money from a 0.1 sales tax that voters passed in 2008 toward its original intent. The money was supposed to pay for new and expanded programs to treat substance abuse and mental health. The Legislature later changed the law to allow counties to use part of that money to support existing programs in those areas.
By fully funding the system, county leaders hope to help mentally ill and drug-addicted people lead more productive lives. Taxpayers also stand to save money, they said, by avoiding unnecessary emergency room visits and jail stays.
“Treating somebody once is a lot cheaper than sending them to jail three times,” Roe said.
Gossett’s proposal comes as the County Council reviews the budget Reardon released in September.
The executive’s spending plan calls for an operating budget of about $211 million with no layoffs.
The council is likely to pass its version of the budget before Thanksgiving break. After that, Reardon will have the chance to sign it or attempt a veto.
Reardon, in the past, has opposed tax cuts, but hasn’t said whether he would veto a budget that includes an increase in property taxes. In the spring, Reardon proposed increasing the sales tax for public safety, but failed to enlist support from other county leaders.
Gossett said he’s confident a majority of his council colleagues will support the new plan.
Council Chairman Brian Sullivan, who has a lead roll crafting next year’s budget, said he encouraged Gossett to draw up the plan and stands fully behind it.
“I wasn’t elected to make easy decisions, and this is my best shot as chairman,” Sullivan said.
The County Council has scheduled two hearings on Wednesday, at 10:30 a.m. and 6:30 p.m., to discuss Reardon’s proposed budget. The public is welcome to speak at those meetings on the eighth floor of the county administration building east.
Noah Haglund: 425-339-3465; email@example.com.
Public meetings about the 2013 Snohomish County budget, all in the eighth-floor council chambers at the county’s Robert J. Drewel building, 3000 Rockefeller Ave., Everett
•Oct. 31, 10:30 a.m. and 6:30 p.m.: Public hearing on the executive’s proposed budget
•Nov. 8, 1:30 p.m.: Council chairman’s budget ordinance released
•Nov. 19, 10:30 a.m.: Public hearing on council chairman’s budget ordinance