EVERETT — In the run-up to the Aug. 2 primary, with ballots in the hands of voters, Snohomish County Executive Dave Somers assessed the stakes surrounding Proposition 1.
Passage of the proposed sales tax hike would mean more law enforcement officers on the street and resources invested in community treatment programs for drug-addicted criminals.
Defeat would force Somers to pare 3 percent from the 2017 budgets of all county departments including the sheriff’s office. Layoffs seemed inevitable in some departments.
“It’ll be pretty ugly if it doesn’t pass,” Somers said in mid-July.
Well, it’s ugly time.
Somers is planning conversations with department heads and council members on where to make nearly $7 million in reductions out of next year’s roughly $240 million general fund.
He said he’ll deliver a proposed budget, with his recommendations, to the council by the third week of September. Councilmembers can then massage it to reflect their priorities and pass a revised version around Thanksgiving.
“I was very optimistic that the voters would say yes to (Proposition 1),” Somers said last week. “Now we are in the cutting mode. I think everybody’s pretty down.”
This is not the scenario envisioned by the County Council when it agreed in May to ask voters to increase the sales tax by 0.2 percent and use the new dollars to combat the social and criminal impacts of what many describe as an epidemic of heroin addiction in the community.
Sheriff Ty Trenary, the force behind the measure, already had been hard at work.
In mid-April, he started assembling the political apparatus for Proposition 1 by creating a campaign committee, A Safer Snohomish County. The committee then contracted for a poll to gauge the attitude of voters toward a tax hike on the ballot.
The results revealed an electorate torn by a desire to embrace the needs of law enforcement and a dislike of higher taxes.
In all, 81 percent of the 500 likely voters interviewed had a favorable opinion of law enforcement officers. And nearly two-thirds of those surveyed expressed a willingness to support a sales tax increase for public safety if it was spent on treatment programs and adding officers.
But when asked about economic concerns, 51 percent said they already felt overtaxed and another 30 percent had worries about the rising cost of living.
And 52 percent said Snohomish County’s crime and public safety situation would be “tough but manageable” if the ballot measure failed while 31 percent said it would be “fine.”
In their analysis, pollsters told campaign organizers “the terms of this debate are already well-known and well-defined, pitting public safety against people’s pocketbooks.
“Voters are willing to pony up to combat Snohomish County’s drug problem and the resulting crime, but they are also open to a case that puts taxes first. The side that wins this core debate is likely to emerge victorious,” they said.
They stressed that “while victory is achievable, it is far from guaranteed. Winning this ballot initiative will require an aggressive, well-funded, and disciplined effort.”
A Safer Snohomish County raised $508,000 for the 11-week campaign. Most of it went to pay for radio commercials, digital ads and mailers.
Brooke Davis, the campaign manager, earned $24,000 through mid-July, according to reports filed with state Public Disclosure Commission.
No money was spent on television ads. Those are expensive and not doing them was a decision Davis said she made collectively with, among others, Trenary and Snohomish County Prosecutor Mark Roe.
“We put together what we thought and believed to be a very robust campaign,” Davis said. “We went directly to voters with a strong communication plan. We had positive polling but there is still a hurdle of getting people to self-impose a tax. It is a very, very high hurdle and unfortunately we weren’t able to get the public to do it.”
The campaign also did not organize phone banks or deploy doorbellers which are generally considered fundamental components of a campaign.
That might have cost them, Trenary suggested.
“We knew we had a bit of a tough sell,” he said. “I believe that based on the poll results our messaging didn’t work.
“If I could go back and do one thing, I’d do town halls and community meetings,” he said. “I think we missed the mark in explaining how it wasn’t just the Sheriff’s Department but every law enforcement agency that would benefit.”
Somers said not having an organized opposition was “nice” but “hurt us” because without anyone to debate they couldn’t get the conversation on the ballot measure onto the radar of voters.
He said they didn’t do a good enough job answering the public’s questions on how the additional revenue would be used.
“We had answers but did not get them to voters,” he said.
County Councilman Brian Sullivan, a co-chairman of the campaign, said he didn’t think the campaign did anything wrong strategically.
“Some of the polling we had suggested that conservative voters would go our way,” he said. “They thought a more traditional method would work.”
In the election’s final days, the Proposition 1 campaign found itself entangled in questions about financial reports filed by Cindy Larsen, who is running to become a Snohomish County Superior Court judge.
Larsen, who won the primary, is a deputy county prosecutor and is backed by Roe and Trenary
Larsen endorsed Proposition 1 and her photo was featured in a mailer supporting the ballot measure that was sent to thousands of voters. A complaint filed with the state Public Disclosure Commission alleges the mailers represent an in-kind donation that Larsen should have disclosed. State investigators are assessing whether any violation occurred.
In the meantime, another mystifying matter has arisen since election night.
It turns out 15,600 people didn’t vote on Proposition 1 but did vote in the races for U.S. Senate and governor located next to the tax measure on every ballot. Supporters said they wonder if those voters simply didn’t see the tax measure because it was sandwiched between instructions on how to mark the ballot and an explanation of the party preferences.
Snohomish County Auditor Carolyn Weikel said the ballot design and order of items is guided by state law.
“If people didn’t read the ballot but just jumped to the partisan races where they saw names of candidates, they would have missed it,” she said.
Campaign manager Davis expressed what many feel: “Certainly in a race this close, it could make a difference.”
As the election post-mortem continues, budget cutting knives are being sharpened.
Somers asked department heads to tell him how they might pare spending by 3 percent.
Some said they’d not fill vacant positions. Roe proposed to fill some senior positions at a lower level which saves money with lower salaries and the Medical Examiner’s Office proposed not hiring a chief medical investigator.
Trenary is working on it now and said he can’t promise sheriff’s office employees won’t lose their jobs.
“I am telling people we will do everything we can to cut spending and avoid layoffs,” he said. “I can’t guarantee there won’t be layoffs until we know the final (budget) numbers.”
If Somers and county councilmembers are looking to generate revenue, they could enact a 1 percent property-tax hike for the county’s general levy. Many cities and counties in Washington do this as a matter of course in their annual budget each year but Snohomish County leaders have not.
Somers did not say if he’ll recommend such an increase. He didn’t for the 2016 budget.
Sullivan suggested another stream of dollars could be tapped to soften the blow: the $4 million in annual taxes collected to pay down courthouse construction bonds.
“It means we have to reprioritize,” he said “This would be a big blow to the future of the courthouse.”
For Proposition 1 supporters, losing by such a narrow margin — 325 votes as of Friday — is tougher than getting whipped.
“It’s painful when it’s so close,” Somers said. “There’s not a clear ‘yes’ and not a clear ‘no’. The question is still hanging out there.”
So they will be talking about trying again though not this year as it’s too late for the November election.
“I think we have some challenges before we go back to the voters,” Trenary said. “The need for more deputies does not go away. I am worried the epidemic that created the situation for this isn’t getting better. It is getting worse.”
Roe echoed the sentiment.
“Maybe we will try again. I don’t know,” he said in an email Friday.
“It is very frustrating. We get understandable complaints every day along the lines of ‘why don’t you do more’ about the increase in heroin use and property crimes,” he said. “It should be completely obvious to anyone that we must have more to do more, but still, I bet some of the ‘why don’t you do more’ folks voted against Prop 1.”
Jerry Cornfield: 360-352-8623; firstname.lastname@example.org; Twitter: @dospueblos.