Editorial: Best options after failure of public safety tax increase

By The Herald Editorial Board

Snohomish County voters were nearly even split regarding support for the Aug. 2 ballot measure, Proposition 1, which would have added .2 percent to the sales tax and supplemented law enforcement and other public safety programs in the county and in its cities.

The no vote prevailed in the election, which was certified Tuesday, by a slim 50.1 percent, with less than 350 votes separating the sides.

For supporters of the tax increase, the slim margin is more maddening than consoling, particularly when paired with consideration of what officials in the county and its cities had hoped to do with the infusion of revenue.

Raising an estimated $25 million a year, 60 percent of the revenue would have gone to the county while the cities would have split the remaining 40 percent on a per capita basis to assist with their own public safety needs. Proposition 1 was sold as an investment in addressing the county’s and its cities’ problems with addiction and homelessness.

The county had planned to hire 35 more sheriff’s deputies over the next three years, permanently fund four deputy prosecutors it hired earlier this year and hire four more social workers that would have teamed with deputies to identify those struggling with addiction, homelessness and mental illness and connect them with services rather than cycle them through the courts and jails. About $2 million would have gone toward funding for more drug and alcohol treatment beds and to help fund operation of a transitional housing program planned at Everett’s Carnegie Building near the county jail.

And about a third of the county’s share would have bolstered a sagging budget and avoided what could be across-the-board cuts of 3 percent. With the ballot measure’s loss, layoffs are a likelihood for the county. County Executive Dave Somers’ budget is expected in September.

“Now we are in the cutting mode,” Somers told The Herald’s Jerry Cornfield last week.

Supporters of the measure are asking themselves what they might have done differently in their campaign for the sales tax increase, which would have added 20 cents dollars to a $100 purchase.

No tax increase request is ever certain, but voters might feel they are reaching the limits of what they can shoulder through the sales tax. Items and services purchased in Everett, for example, are taxed at a rate of 9.2 percent, 6.5 percent of which goes to the state.

The sales tax is identified by many as one of the reasons why Washington state’s tax system is considered among the nation’s most regressive, meaning it hits lower-income families harder than middle- and upper-income families. But it’s also one of the few options left to local officials looking for a new source of revenue.

Some, as Cornfield’s report notes, faulted a lack of campaign phone banks and door-belling. Somers suggested that the absence of an organized “no” campaign may have made it more difficult for supporters to make their case to voters.

The numbers who voted in other races — about 15,600 — but did not mark either yes or no on Proposition 1, has raised questions that some voters might have not seen the question because of the design of the ballot.

Another factor might have been the news that elected county officials will receive a significant pay raise in 2017, a decision not left to the county executive or the council but made by an independent commission.

The county has a couple of options, including passing a 1 percent property tax increase to its general levy that many counties take routinely but that Snohomish County has not. The county also could dip into the revenue that it is now collecting to pay off bonds for the planned courthouse renovation.

But either of those options might raise objections from taxpayers, complicating a campaign if officials plan to attempt the sales tax increase again at a later date.

What might build some goodwill with the voters in advance of a second attempt, however, would be to demonstrate the success of some of what Proposition 1 hoped to fund, specifically finding some way to fund additional teams of social workers and deputies and increasing the number of treatment beds.

The loss by less than 350 votes shows that, while maddening now, voters can be convinced that the investment in public safety is worth the price asked.

Correction: An earlier version of this editorial gave an incorrect figure for what the increase would have added to the sales tax. The increase would have added 20 cents in tax to a $100 purchase.

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