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Sheriff seeks councilmen's support for county law and justice sales tax

What was basically a sales pitch to the Sunnyside City Council this past Monday night turned into an interesting discussion between Sunnyside City Manager Bob Stockwell and Yakima County Sheriff Ken Irwin.

Irwin stood before Council this past Monday night to market the need for a sales tax increase he is proposing to help fund law and justice services in Yakima County.

Irwin said he was seeking the support of the Sunnyside Council with a letter of recommendation to the Yakima County commissioners for the measure to be placed before voters this November.

The tax calls for an increase of 3/10th of a penny. The tax would be charged on all items sold in Yakima County with the exception of groceries, medical services and automobile sales and leases. Irwin explained that if a county resident spends $100 shopping, the sales tax will basically amount to an additional 30ยข being charged.

"That is not a huge tax," said Irwin. "We are going to put it to good use."

Under the proposal, Yakima County would receive 60 percent of the revenue from the sales tax, estimated to be $6.7 million in its initial year. The other 40 percent would be split among the 14 cities in Yakima County on a per capita basis. Yakima would receive the largest part of the funding, an estimated $1.5 million, followed by Sunnyside at $279,873. Grandview would gain an additional $165,869 under Irwin's proposal. Mabton would see an additional $40,024 in revenue.

"You could put that to good use in your law and justice system," said Irwin.

Irwin told Council he was looking for some sort of solution to address decreasing revenue the county is experiencing. Irwin said with the tax cut initiatives voters have passed, the county and cities are operating on shoestring budgets and it is expected to only get worse if voters pass a property tax cut initiative being proposed by Tim Eyman this November.

The sheriff's department serves 90,000 residents in Yakima County. Irwin oversees a $7.9 million budget and has 65 commissioned officers and 34 clerical/dispatch personnel on staff. Yakima County ranks 37th out of 39th counties in the state in regards to the ratio of officers to residents. Under the proposal, Irwin would hire eight more deputies and two detectives.

"We just plain need a few more law enforcement officers out there," said Irwin. "You can just do so much with the amount of deputy sheriffs we have on the road."

If voters pass Irwin's proposal, the money will also be used to fund the Yakima County prosecutor, District Court, Superior Court and juvenile court offices. Irwin told Council Yakima County plans to dedicate money to re-establishing a Lower Valley District Court.

"It is the whole law and justice system we are trying to help out," said Irwin.

Irwin said Yakima County Prosecutor Ron Zirkle has a desk load of felony cases ready to go to trial, but he doesn't have the staff to prosecute. Irwin said this tax would help relieve some of that burden.

"This is a fair tax," said Irwin. "This is spread out amongst the whole population."

If passed, the life of the tax measure would be for six years. The measure would then be put before voters again, said Irwin. The sheriff said his plan is to keep the public as well informed as possible about where the money from the sales tax is being spent.

"I want that accountability to the public," said Irwin.

Councilman Bruce Ricks had some questions about where the money would go from the tax. Irwin said the sheriff's department would receive about 32 percent of the county's portion of the funds with that amount declining each year. The prosecuting attorney's office would gain about 20 percent with the rest of the money being split by different departments.

Ricks told Irwin that he felt money from the tax shouldn't be split on a per capita basis. Ricks said if one community was generating much more sales tax revenue than another, that city should be reimbursed accordingly.

Irwin and Ricks did agree that probation services need to be located in the Lower Valley.

Ricks also wanted the county to put more pressure on the Yakama Nation to provide funding.

Sunnyside resident Juan Aguilar, in attendance at last night's meeting, said he was in favor of Irwin's measure and told the sheriff he wished the amount he was requesting was higher than 3/10th of a penny.

Stockwell, though, wasn't as agreeable with the proposed tax by Irwin. Stockwell said he had concerns, especially with the property tax initiative coming before voters, that Irwin's proposal wasn't solving any funding issues.

"It does not solve the underlying revenue problem that exists," said Stockwell.

Stockwell said he was worried about Irwin's proposal passing and then in six years voters aren't for it and people end up being put out of work or the sheriff's department is left trying to find another way to fund the positions. Stockwell said if Eyman's initiative passes, Sunnyside will lose $380,000 next year, which comes out of the general fund. Stockwell said the money coming from Irwin's tax proposal wouldn't totally replace all of the money lost.

Irwin disagreed with Stockwell's observations. Irwin said the people need to decide what sort of law enforcement services they want.

"We have to look the people in the eye and say if you want this level of service then you are going to have to pay," said Irwin.

Stockwell said the state needs to find permanent lines of funding, so city and county agencies aren't constantly looking for ways to fund programs. But, Stockwell said he will vote for Irwin's tax because it is the only option he can foresee.

"This is not the solution," stated Stockwell. "The problem has not been solved (with this proposal). This system is flawed."

Irwin said he understood what Stockwell was saying, but until the legislature changes the way it does things, there is a need to be proactive to address funding shortfalls.

"Shame on us if we don't take positive steps," said Irwin.

Mayor Ed Prilucik asked staff to do more research on Irwin's proposal and how Eyman's property tax initiative would play into the scenario. Council will address providing its support for Irwin's proposal at a meeting in July.

. Mike Kantman can be contacted at (509) 837-4500, or email him at mkantman@eaglenewspapers.com

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