Reardon to propose sales tax for criminal justice

EVERETT — Snohomish County Executive Aaron Reardon has been making the rounds to warn elected leaders that police, prosecutors and other workers in criminal justice system could feel the brunt of looming budget cuts.

As a solution, Reardon is expected to pitch a new criminal justice sales tax at meetings scheduled for today with the sheriff, the prosecuting attorney, and local mayors and police chiefs.

Reardon’s efforts might be in vain.

The County Council, which would have to put the issue on the ballot, has sent a unanimous letter saying that pushing for a new sales tax would be a wasted effort.

Sheriff John Lovick and Prosecuting Attorney Mark Roe said it’s a bad time to ask taxpayers for money, even though their departments could use the help.

“I’d love to think that the public is prepared for a ‘yes’ vote, but right now I don’t know that the mood is there to get a ‘yes’ vote,” Lovick said. “There’s definitely a need for new revenue in the county and for law enforcement in particular.”

Roe said he hears constituents telling elected officials every day to “live within their means.”

“That doesn’t sound like a public that’s ready to vote for a brand-new tax, no matter how justified I think it would be,” he said.

Roe noted that his office has lost 20 percent of the criminal deputy prosecutors it had in 2008. They focus resources on violent offenses, child sex abuse, drunken-driving and domestic violence cases, he said, but aren’t able to devote as much time to some other crimes.

Reardon isn’t talking publicly about what he has in mind.

Some of those he’s approached said the pitch is likely to be a sales tax of one-tenth of 1 percent. The law allows counties to push for a public vote on a criminal justice sales tax of up to three times that amount.

The new sales tax would come on top of 7.7 cents to 9.5 cents per dollar that people pay on most goods, depending on where they are in the county. If the new tax were to pass, that would increase to 7.8 cents and 9.6 cents.

King County voters turned down a similar proposal in 2010, with about 55 percent voting “no.” That proposition would have raised sales tax by 0.2 percent.

An extra tenth of a percent in sales tax would give Snohomish County an extra $10 million during a full year, split 60-40 among the county and local municipalities. If it were to pass, the county would start receiving the money in mid-2013.

The County Council would have to act quickly to make that happen. They’d have to have a public meeting, vote on the proposal and then submit it to the county auditor before Aug. 7 — the deadline to appear on the Nov. 6 general election ballot.

Many county leaders, Lovick included, believe there’s too little time to mount a public campaign explaining why an increase is necessary.

“If we were going to put it on the ballot, frankly, it’s something that we should have been talking about six months ago,” he said.

Today’s meetings are not open to the public.

Among those planning to attend is Marysville Mayor Jon Nehring, who declined to comment until learning more details.

Everett Mayor Ray Stephanson planned to send Police Chief Kathy Atwood. Snohomish County’s largest city has been able to avoid layoffs to its nearly 200-strong police force, despite the economy.

“We’ve kept public safety very robust during this downturn,” Stephanson said.

He called a sales tax “a pretty tough ask” in an economy that’s improving, but still tough.

On Wednesday, all five County Council members sent a joint letter to local mayors, city managers and police chiefs about Reardon’s meeting.

Given what they know, they wrote, they would refuse to put the sales tax measure on the ballot. They made it clear that the executive has not consulted with them.

“Expending money on a ballot measure that is doomed for failure is a waste of precious public resources,” the letter says.

They called it “a long-term problem that requires and deserves more than a rushed, ill-timed proposal that has little chance of success.”

Reardon is the subject of a State Patrol criminal investigation involving his alleged misuse of county taxpayers’ money and resources. While the County Council has not tied Reardon’s legal problem to their objections to his proposed tax increase, they have called for Reardon to step down from his county duties until the official misconduct investigation is resolved.

A new sales tax would have to be put on the ballot. The executive and the County Council also have the option of raising property taxes by 1 percent per year. The county’s portion of the property tax has not increased during Reardon’s eight-plus years in office.

The county’s operating budget, or general fund, has been about $200 million over the past few years.

County Council members have said it’s premature to discuss a tax hike since they’re only now starting to get specific information about what’s in store for next year.

So far, council staff has identified about $3.5 million likely to disappear. The causes include lost jail revenues, state cuts, the initiative to privatize state liquor stores and a state requirement to change the way some money is allocated to veterans and mental health programs.

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

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