EVERETT — Voters will be asked in August whether they are willing to pay a little more at the cash register to help Snohomish County combat what is being described as an epidemic of heroin addiction in the community.
The Snohomish County Council on Monday voted 4-1 to ask voters to decide whether to support a 0.2 percent sales tax increase to support law and justice.
The county says the money would pay to add deputies and prosecutors and to continue efforts aimed at tackling property crimes and other drug-related problems.
If a majority of voters approve the measure during the Aug. 2 election, the average household would pay an extra $94.37 a year, or 2 cents per $10 purchase.
The tax hike would apply countywide and is expected to raise approximately $25 million annually. The revenue would be split, with 60 percent going to the county and the remaining 40 percent divided among area cities on a per-capita basis.
“We have to give our law enforcement the tools they need to be successful,” said County Council Chairman Terry Ryan of Mill Creek.
This is one of the fastest-growing places in Washington, and it is not keeping pace with the challenges, County Councilman Brian Sullivan said.
“We are falling woefully behind on protecting our citizens,” said Sullivan, of Everett.
The lone vote in opposition was cast by County Councilman Ken Klein of Arlington. Klein said he supports directing more cops and prosecutors toward fighting drugs but he is reluctant to suggest a tax hike without more specifics on how the money will be spent.
Klein also voted against an amendment offered by County Councilman Hans Dunshee that encouraged county Executive Dave Somers to work with law enforcement officials, including those in cities, to provide incentives for alternate approaches to fighting drug-related problems.
“Treatment is cheaper than jail,” Dunshee said.
In addition to adding staff, Sheriff Ty Trenary has said he wants to improve the training deputies receive for dealing with people who live with mental illness or struggle with drug addiction.
Dunshee’s amendment passed 3-2, with Klein and Ryan opposed.
Somers and Sullivan both were in Hong Kong on a trade mission and they participated in the hearing via telephone conference call.
The county executive said his staff will work closely with the council between now and August to help people understand how the money will be spent.
“This is a project in progress,” he said.
Criminal justice costs already consume 75 cents of every dollar in the county’s operating budget. That includes the price for patrol deputies, running the jail, providing defense attorneys, fielding prosecutors, operating the courts and related services.
Law-and-order spending has grown over the years. In 1980, about half of the county’s spending went to public safety.
Marysville Mayor Jon Nehring said officials in his city also have struggled to adequately fund crime-fighting. The link to drug abuse is undeniable, he said.
“It is essential for us to defend our community from the onslaught,” Nehring said.
Fire officials from throughout the county were at the hearing. Last week they raised concerns that the ordinance as originally drafted could actually harm public safety by suggesting that the money raised would help pay for “fire protection services” when that wasn’t the intent.
The offending language was scrubbed from the version of the ordinance that was approved to send to the voters.
Merlin Halverson, chief at Fire District 5 in Sultan and president of the Snohomish County Fire Chiefs Association, thanked the County Council for listening to concerns and making changes.
He pledged support for the retooled measure.
“It’s the right thing to do, and it is the right time to do it,” he said.
County officials’ statement of support
Three leaders in Snohomish County government on Monday issued a statement supporting a County Council vote on Monday to place a proposal on the ballot Aug. 2 that would provide extra money for law enforcement through a 0.2 percent sales tax increase.
County Executive Dave Somers, Sheriff Ty Trenary and Prosecutor Mark Roe said the money is needed to tackle what they called a heroin epidemic.
Here is the text of their statement:
“Snohomish County is facing an unprecedented heroin epidemic with devastating consequences for our families, schools, and quality of life. Experience has shown that you cannot arrest your way out of drug addiction, homelessness, and mental illness. Therefore, we fully support the Snohomish County Council’s decision to give voters the opportunity to decide how we will address the heroin epidemic and associated problems. There is a complicated relationship between mental illness, drug addiction, homelessness, and crime, and we need to address that nexus of problems by taking a holistic, system-wide approach that actually works.
“Public safety and social service professionals have known for many years that more comprehensive approaches to addiction- and mental illness-fueled crimes are more effective than a revolving door of arrest and jail. We think today’s public is more aware and better informed than ever before and likely recognizes the need for a new commitment as well.
“We are happy the public will be able to make this decision.
“To create and sustain new programs that address the causes of crime, and not just crime, requires new approaches. We think the public will be willing to adopt these new, system-wide strategies because this affects all of us, every day.
“This proposal would allow Snohomish County to expand its Office of Neighborhoods initiative, pairing more law enforcement officials with more social workers. This would allow us to hire additional, needed Snohomish County sheriff’s deputies and social workers. The proposal would also allow us to expand alternative sentencing programs, drug addiction treatment, mental health services, and other social services that can help get at the root of addiction, mental health problems, and homelessness. These programs have a proven track record of success and need additional capacity to bring them to scale to address the current crisis. Today’s vote is the first in many steps to create long-term solutions for our heroin epidemic and related problems.
“Of course, for those who would sell drugs or commit violent crimes, we will use every tool at our disposal to see them face justice. The additional public safety resources will ensure we are arresting, prosecuting, and jailing drug dealers and violent criminals. For those from the cartels or even smaller drug dealing operations, we will make Snohomish County an extremely unwelcome place for them to operate.
“In addition, cities will also receive resources to implement coordinated efforts to work against the heroin epidemic. We believe this partnership between the county and cities will bring a truly regional approach to this difficult and painful problem. To ensure the plan addresses concerns from across our community, we will work with cities, law enforcement, the county council, county executive, and other partners. In addition to current efforts to find added efficiencies and opportunities for coordination across the region, we will work with our partners to establish a Snohomish County Public Safety and Human Services Alliance. The alliance will help us implement and coordinate efforts across the region.
“Working together, we will put the heroin epidemic behind us.”