Snohomish County social worker Jesse Calliham (right) helps Jared Gans, of Everett, get started on his paperwork prior to a chemical dependency evaluation at Evergreen Recovery Center in Everett on June 29. Snohomish County Sheriff Ty Trenary has vowed to allocate funds received from a potential 0.2 percent sales-tax increase to further expand the embedded social worker program that Calliham is a part of. (Ian Terry / The Herald)

Proposed Snohomish County tax hike would fund criminal justice

Jared Gans stepped out of the patrol car, hauling a suitcase to the curb. He grabbed a quick smoke while Jesse Calliham, a social worker with Snohomish County, went inside to buy him a bus ticket.

Gans hadn’t slept much during the week he was locked up at the Snohomish County Jail. He was coming off heroin and methamphetamine. Detoxing in a jail cell isn’t for the faint of heart.

Late last month, Snohomish County sheriff’s deputies and their embedded social worker, Lauren Rainbow, found Gans, 29, asleep in a chair next to a bonfire at a homeless camp off of Lowell-Snohomish River Road.

They made their pitch to the Everett man. They’d help him get clean if he was ready. Gans was an easy sell, more amenable than most in the homeless camps, sheriff’s deputy Adam Malaby said. He agreed to meet them the next day to get a chemical dependency evaluation, the first stop before inpatient treatment in Spokane. Worried he’d miss the meeting, Gans slept in the parking lot at the McDonald’s where deputies planned to pick him up.

“This life of drugs is not going anywhere. I don’t want to go back, but I know it’ll be right here waiting,” he said. “This opportunity may not come around again.”

Snohomish County Sheriff Ty Trenary has vowed to expand the embedded social worker program if voters next month pass a 0.2 percent sales-tax increase earmarked for law and justice. The plan, Trenary said, would be to hire four more social workers to team up with deputies to help address the growing population of homeless drug addicts.

Ballots for the Aug. 2 election were mailed last week.

The biggest chunk of sales-tax money would go toward hiring 35 more deputies over the next three years. That would come at a cost of about $6 million.

The sheriff’s office has about 260 commissioned deputies. A consultant last year recommended adding 44 more patrol deputies for optimal staffing.

Some of the sales tax money would be used to permanently fund four deputy prosecutors hired earlier this year, the sheriff said. About $2 million would be set aside for drug and alcohol treatment beds. The new revenue also would pay to help operate a transitional housing and social services center planned for the Carnegie Building near the county jail.

Backers of Proposition 1, the Criminal Justice Sales and Use Tax, say the additional revenue is needed to combat heroin addiction and homelessness. Yet, they acknowledge they’re still working out the details.

“This is being formulated as we speak, which isn’t particularly satisfying to the public, but that’s the truth of the matter,” County Executive Dave Somers said.

The new tax is expected to bring in about $25 million per year. The county would collect 60 percent, with the other 40 percent divvied up among the 20 cities in Snohomish County, based on population.

Of the county’s portion, roughly a third would be used to sustain existing programs. Without the new revenue, Somers said he would have to recommend 3 percent cuts for all county departments — including the sheriff’s office. Trimming that much would be impossible without layoffs.

“It’ll be pretty ugly if it doesn’t pass,” Somers said.

The executive said his administration has been doing its part to pare back expenses, wherever possible. One his first big policy decisions as executive was to recommend pulling the plug on a planned new courthouse. Somers favors renovation instead. While that won’t fix many safety and maintenance problems with the nearly 50-year-old structure, it’s expected to cost less than half as much as a new building.

Law and public safety functions already soak up 75 cents of every dollar in Snohomish County’s operating budget. Other large Washington counties report a similar split.

That wasn’t always the case. In the early 1980s, about half of Snohomish County’s discretionary spending went toward the justice system. Then the numbers started rising, gradually at first, then more quickly. Since 2007, 97 percent of all new spending in the county operating budget has supported law and justice system. Then the numbers started rising, gradually at first, then more quickly.

Snohomish County Prosecuting Attorney Mark Roe argues that’s still not enough. That’s why he supports the new sales tax.

“Another two pennies in your pocket won’t make you feel safer,” he said. “This will. Better than feeling safer, you will be safer.”

The campaign for A Safer Snohomish County had received more than $500,000 in donations and pledges. Most came from the Stillaguamish Tribe of Indians ($400,000) and the Snohomish County Deputy Sheriff’s Association ($100,000). The Arlington Police Officers Association chipped in $1,000. A dozen individual donations were almost entirely from people working in county government, legal or police circles.

The tax could be a tough sell, if comments on the campaign’s Facebook page are any indicator. There’s the usual anti-tax mood and skepticism about confronting social issues with more police. Some complain about the lack of details for how the money would be spent. Others said statewide reforms to the mental health system are more pressing than boosting law enforcement numbers.

No opposing statement appears in voters pamphlets for the primary election. No one stepped forward to write one after county elections officials sent a press release and emails seeking people to argue the other side of the issue, county elections manager Garth Fell said.

The local chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness likes the idea of putting more social workers in the field along with efforts to divert people from jail into therapeutic treatment.

“We obviously support the allocation of more funds and resources to help those that are vulnerable in our community,” chapter president Keith Binkley said. “However, it is critically important to follow the money and make sure it is achieving the desired intent to truly make things better.”

When a proposal like this surfaces, he said, it’s important to monitor whether it’s effectively dealing with what causes interactions with police.

There’s barely a hint of opposition among the county’s elected leaders.

Councilman Ken Klein cast the lone vote against the proposition this spring when his colleagues decided to put it on the ballot. Klein says he isn’t against the concept, but wants more accountability about how the money is spent.

“I want to ensure that the resources are going to the issues of the day, which are chemical dependency and mental health,” he said.

Support for the tax hike is coming from unexpected places.

Kathleen Kyle is the director of the Snohomish County Public Defender Association. The nonprofit contracts with the county to provide lawyers to represent indigent clients. She is hopeful that additional funding will mean more opportunities for such things as crisis intervention training, or even just more time on the street for cops to assess a person’s situation, instead of hauling him off to jail.

“If they were saying they were going to do business as usual, I would be concerned,” Kyle said. “They’re not saying that.”

The tax is being billed as a way to tackle heroin addiction and homelessness. It will put more police on the street, but the goal is to find alternatives to incarceration, Trenary said.

“I’m not suggesting we are going to arrest our way out it,” the sheriff said. “Who gets the calls to intervene though? Somebody has to do the intervention.”

He pointed to reforms he oversaw at the jail, including booking restrictions that changed how the facility is used. Trenary doesn’t expect adding more deputies will affect how he’s running the jail.

“We’re coming up on three years of walking the talk,” he said. “This is not a ‘Hey give us more money so we can go back to the way we used to do it.’ We need additional options.”

His office launched its embedded social worker program last summer. So far, the team has arranged detox for 63 people and secured treatment for 54. Of those, 30 have graduated their programs. They’ve helped 39 people obtain their state identification cards and another 30 were signed up for insurance. They’ve also helped secure housing for 43 people who’d been living in homeless camps.

Trenary and others acknowledge that there isn’t a single solution to tackle these complicated problems.

The sales tax would generate about $10 million for new criminal justice programs. That would leave lots of unmet needs. Various county departments have made $13 million worth of requests for that money.

The sheriff’s office would be first in line.

Trenary wants to bring on a mixture of veterans from other agencies along with new hires. That won’t come cheap. Snohomish County deputies earn an average yearly salary of more than $70,000. Their bosses typically earn nearly $115,000. Benefits, vehicles and equipment come on top of that.

For Roe’s money, uniformed officers are the best deterrent to burglaries and other property crimes. Like the sheriff, he sees deputies as the most likely first point of contact with offenders who might be looking to confront their addiction or mental illness.

He doesn’t believe adding deputies would swamp the courts with more cases.

“I think this is sticking our foot in the revolving door and taking somebody by the arm and taking them to a different door,” he said. Roe called prison “an expensive way not to treat people.”

While the messaging has been clear, the details of the proposal have sometimes been muddled.

Roe was surprised when County Councilman Brian Sullivan sent out a press release that suggested seven new deputy prosecutors would be hired.

Trenary later explained: The new revenue would help Roe’s office retain four prosecutors hired this year. It would allow the prosecutor to hire three more attorneys in the next few years.

Roe said he’d like to use the money to restart a diversion program that was cut during the recession. He’d also like to hire an advocate to help crime victims collect on restitution owed by defendants. Those programs, he said, wouldn’t directly address the heroin problem.

The county already collects a dedicated sales tax for drug and mental health treatment. The County Council approved the 0.1 percent tax in 2008 and revenue started coming in the following year. For 2016, it’s paying for about $17.5 million in programs. Some of the biggest uses are human services programs for housing and treatment, but it’s also supporting court diversion programs and health-care needs at the jail.

An advisory board makes recommendations to the executive and council about how to spend those mental-health dollars. There’s no specific requirement for such an advisory board to guide spending the criminal-justice sales tax, though there have been discussions about creating one. Without it, the County Council and city councils would have more leeway.

There’s no shortage of work out on the streets, Calliham and Rainbow said.

The two social workers are based out of the sheriff’s Office of Neighborhoods in the south precinct in Mill Creek. They carry about a 40-client caseload and are in contact off and on with about 100 other people.

They both worked to find Gans a spot at a treatment center.

The Everett High School graduate was in his late teens when he started drinking heavily, before swapping alcohol for heroin. For three years he held down a job while he was using. He eventually lost any control of his addiction.

While Calliham and Rainbow were hustling to take advantage of his willingness to get help, Gans crossed paths with Everett police officers. They booked him for misdemeanor warrants after they found him slumped in a car near the hospital. He couldn’t get a call in to Malaby before he was taken away.

Word of his arrest reached the team when they went looking for him in the camp. They visited him in jail and attended his court hearing. The judge agreed to release Gans to Malaby. The next day, the deputy and Calliham picked Gans up at jail, got him breakfast and drove him to the transit center.

The duo watched Gans board the bus. Before he’s released next month, they’ll make plans for housing and outpatient treatment. Some of their most intensive work begins once the client leaves a treatment center. Recovering addicts often need help with day-to-day living until they find their footing.

Gans climbed onto the bus, looked back and waved at the cop and social worker he’d met just a week ago.

Malaby and Calliham got back in the patrol car. Their day was just getting started.

Noah Haglund: 425-339-3465; nhaglund@heraldnet.com. Twitter: @NWhaglund.

About the tax

The tax would take effect countywide on Jan. 1. It would add 2 cents to a $10 purchase.

The cities of Mill Creek and Monroe already impose a 0.1 sales tax for criminal justice. People there would see their the same 0.2 percent increase if the county initiative passes.

Taxpayers in Marysville have a city criminal justice sales tax of 0.1 percent to consider on the Aug. 2 ballot in addition to the county tax. The city hopes to collect an extra $750,000 for police services.

Mill Creek’s 9.9 percent sales-tax rate is the highest in the state. Right behind it are the cities of Edmonds, Mukilteo, Lynnwood, Mountlake Terrace, Brier and the Snohomish County part of Bothell, which pay 9.8 cents per dollar.

Local voters are due to receive another sales-tax request on the November ballot, with the Sound Transit 3 proposal that would bring light rail to Everett and other parts of the region over the next two-plus decades. It includes a 0.5 percent increase in the sales tax along with higher property taxes and car-tab fees.

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