Editorial: Approve sales tax increase for criminal justice

By The Herald Editorial Board

Let’s not pretend that an increase in the sales tax rate throughout the county won’t have a financial impact on residents.

The increase being sought with Proposition No. 1, the Criminal Justice Sales and Use Tax, on the Aug. 2 ballot would boost the rate by two-tenths of 1 percentage point, which would amount to 20 cents for a $100 purchase. It adds to the state’s take of 6.5 percent, and various city and local taxing districts that add their own, resulting in sales tax rates that vary in the county from 7.7 percent in Snohomish and Stanwood up to 9.9 percent in Mill Creek, or $7.70 to $9.90 on a $100 purchase. (Snohomish County, currently, does not levy its own sales tax.)

But let’s also not pretend that the $25 million a year that Proposition No. 1 would provide to the county and its cities can’t result in a significant benefit in reducing crime, connecting those with addiction and suffering from homelessness and mental illness with needed services and generally improving livability in the county and its cities.

Snohomish County officials are seeking the sales tax increase to augment spending on public safety. The revenue would be shared, with the county receiving 60 percent and cities getting the balance, divided on a per capita basis.

The county has an immediate need here; facing a $6 million budget shortfall, if the sales tax increase is rejected the county will likely have to cut 3 percent across the board and layoff workers throughout the county, including within the sheriff’s department.

But the county is seeking to do more than shore up a portion of its budget.

Most of the county’s share would fund the hiring of 35 more sheriff’s deputies over the next three years, boosting current staffing of about 260 deputies. And while county officials continue to work out details, the money also would be allocated to:

Make the hiring of four deputy prosecutors permanent;

Expand an existing county program to hire four additional social workers to accompany deputies and reach out to the homeless population, who often have problems with addiction and mental illness, and connect them with services;

Increase the number of in-patient treatment beds for drug and alcohol addiction; and

Fund other programs specifically for heroin addiction and homelessness.

Snohomish County, like every other county in the state, already spends about 75 percent of the county budget on law enforcement, courts and its jail. But Proposition 1 will allow voters to endorse or reject money that is specifically targeted to the increasingly visible and linked problems of addiction, mental illness and homelessness.

Hiring more law enforcement, on its own, wouldn’t be an effective use of the additional money. But Sheriff Ty Trenary has long recognized that the county won’t “arrest its way out” of these problems.

Trenary brought cities throughout the county to the same conclusion when he changed the booking procedures for the jail and worked to limit the practice of cycling the same people into the jail, through the system and back out onto the streets.

Trenary has seen success instead in teaming deputies and social workers for patrols of homeless encampments. Everett Police are using a similar program. As reported by The Herald’s Noah Haglund, since the program began last summer, the teams have arranged detox stays for 63 people and treatment for 54. Of those, 30 have completed treatment programs. Stable housing has been secured for 43 people who had been living in homeless camps, and 30 have been signed up for insurance to provide regular medical care.

While asking voters to approve a sales tax increase is an a la carte approach to funding services, it should allow the county to target spending and better monitor the effectiveness of the programs. With good data on how people are being helped and what the effect is on property crime and other crimes, county and city officials can then expand or adjust these programs as necessary.

Not all lives will be turned around by these efforts. But many can.

Those whose respond to treatment and find stable housing should in time reduce costs for law enforcement and medical services. The greater benefit, of course, will be lives no longer plagued by addiction, untreated mental illness and homelessness

The tax increase is not insignificant, but neither are its goals.

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