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Spokane County could revive jail tax levy extension after failure at ballot

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(The Center Square) – Spokane County is considering expanding the use of its Juvenile Detention Facility & Jails Sales Tax, which would allow it to build new facilities after voters rejected a previous measure in November.

The 0.1% sales tax funds almost anything related to the county’s Detention Services and generated over $15 million last year. However, discrepancies between state law and the language used in the county’s most recent resolution do not extend to new construction.

Randy Bischoff, Spokane County’s senior director of Finance & Administration, wants to take the sales tax back to the ballot in November to make it permanent. He proposed the idea during Monday’s Board of County Commissioner’s Strategic Planning Meeting.

The decision could save money by not having to place the tax back on the ballot again while also bridging the gap between state law and the county’s resolutions. Doing so would mean adding construction and remodeling to the list of abilities under a new voter-approved resolution.

“In my mind, we would stick with the [state law] and keep it as what the intent was from the RCW versus continuing to limit it,” Commissioner Mary Kuney said. “I don’t know what difference that really makes other than saying we can’t use it on construction for the jail, which we’re not.”

Jim Emacio, a special deputy prosecutor, told the commissioners that by allowing more “flexibility,” the county could use the sales tax to fund future facilities. The move would circumvent a failed measure back in November, in which 63% of voters decided not to pass a new 0.2% sales tax to fund the construction of two jails and various programs.

Spokane County began levying the Juvenile Detention Facility & Jails Sales Tax in 1995; however, it chose to renew the tax every few years instead of indefinitely, first in 1998, then in 2003, 2008 and most recently, 2015. It’s currently set to expire on December 31, 2025.

“The longer you make the ballot proposition, madam chair, the more flexibility you need,” Emacio said. “… You want the most flexibility the law provides in expending those resources.”

Making the sales tax permanent would undoubtedly provide a wealth of flexibility should voters pass a resolution that allows new construction; however, given that it’s only 0.1%, half of what voters rejected in November, it’s unlikely that much funding will go toward new construction.

Bischoff said that most of the corresponding tax revenue goes toward ongoing operations, repairs and maintenance, equipment, etc., and expenditures usually exceed the annual tax revenue. If any money is left over, it likely would not do much to fund a new facility.

Regardless, if voters approve the proposed changes in November, the county could divert funding in the future to prioritize specific projects, such as constructing a new jail, while delaying other priorities.

Emacio said the Commissioners have three things to decide in the meantime:

Whether to make the sales tax permanent or impose it for a specific timeframe as in the past.How to spend the tax revenue, such as on new construction.Whether it will express that intent to voters.

“Except for the first ballot proposition, [on] all the others, you outlined how you’d spent the money during the last three or five or whatever years it ran, so people would know what you spent the money on,” Emacio said. “Whether or not you want to include that or not is an option with the board.”

If the commissioners decide to forward the proposed changes to the ballot and it fails, the county would then miss out on more than $15 million annually that it uses to support its Detention Services.