County jail tax vote will need plenty of discussion

Voters are fickle these days. Especially when it comes to taxes. The passing of initiatives, such as I-695, I-722 and the recent teacher pay initiative, sends seemingly contradictory messages about how voters view our state’s tax structure.

It’s tough to say how people might have reacted to a proposed county jail tax vote this spring. Snohomish County officials pondered the idea of putting a tenth-of-a-cent per dollar sales tax up for vote in 2001. County Executive Bob Drewel scrapped the idea last month in favor of waiting one more year. Smart move.

This gives the county plenty of time to explain the ins and outs of the proposed jail tax to voters and gather feedback. So far, it appears the reality of a jail tax isn’t registering on too many people’s radar screens. The county hasn’t received much feedback either way, said county finance director Dan Clements. But it would be foolish to assume such a response, or lack thereof, means voters and businesses are fine with the idea.

Clements said voters will have a clear understanding of where their money will go by the time they go to the polls in 2002. The county deserves plenty of credit so far for its fiscal responsibility in this area. Further examination of the planned jail revealed ways to cut annual costs from $15 million to $12.5 million. Cost reductions are expected to be found in the old jail, too, Clements said.

The discovery of cost reductions, combined with the realization that the county would earn more revenues than expected from the tax increase, led officials to hold off on the 2001 spring vote. Voters should take comfort in that. It’s especially impressive at a time when, as Clements pointed out, local governments are often tagged with going after revenue even when they don’t need it.

While the general sentiment seems to be anti-all-taxes, voters have proved they are willing to pay for what is important to them and sometimes for proposals that are well planned out and show a plan for accountability.

With that in mind, Snohomish County officials may consider modifying the famous Monopoly game phrase, "Go to jail. Go directly to jail. Do not pass GO. Do not collect $200," in favor of something like, "Go to the people. Go directly to the people. Do not pass the voters. Do not collect more taxes than you absolutely have to."

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