Three-tenth's of a penny may not sound like much, but Yakima County Sheriff Ken Irwin believes it will be enough to help give the county's criminal justice system a much needed shot in the arm.
Wednesday morning, Irwin talked to members of the Sunnyside Daybreak Rotary Club about Proposition #1, a measure that will be on the ballot this November. Proposition #1 asks voters to approve a three-tenths of a penny sales tax increase that will raise money to help fund the Yakima County Sheriff's Office, local police departments within the county and the criminal justice system in general.
According to Irwin, the sales tax increase is expected to raise $6.1 million to be divided between the county and the local police jurisdictions. The county is estimated to receive $3.6 million, with the remainder of the funds going to local police departments, like Sunnyside's, which could see a benefit of $252,000 a year if the proposition passes.
Irwin told Rotarians that he understands that people don't like to pay more in taxes, but he added that this tax is deeply needed.
He explained that in 1998, before the passage of several voter approved initiatives that affected funding, the Yakima County Sheriff's Office had 73 budgeted positions. Irwin said at the end of this year, the Sheriff's Office will be down to having 63 deputies.
"And that's just too thin out there," Irwin said of the number of deputies out on the road.
He noted that the Sheriff's Office provides services for 90,000 people living in unincorporated Yakima County with those 63 deputies.
Irwin said most of the funds raised through Proposition #1 will go to putting more deputies and police officers out on the road.
He added that although most of the funds will go toward supporting local law enforcement agencies, the criminal justice funding issues are something that affect the entire system.
"It's a system wide issue," Irwin said.
He told Rotarians that Yakima County Prosecutor Ron Zirkle has 90 to 100 cases sitting in his office, ready to go.
"We've ID'd who the criminal is, but he simply doesn't have the capacity to take those cases to court," Irwin said.
He said that the county wants to be able to hold those criminals accountable for their actions.
And adults offenders aren't the only people who are not getting properly processed. Irwin said because of a shortage of open beds in the juvenile system, many young offenders aren't being held. He said instead, they are often times being released into their parents' custody.
"It's not right, we need more beds," Irwin said. He added that if Proposition #1 is approved it would help cover the cost of creating more room in the juvenile system to handle the load.
"We have a system here that because of reductions...we're not able to provide the service we should be here in Yakima County," Irwin said. "I don't think that's the type of county we want to live in."
Irwin also asked those in attendance at this morning's meeting not to vote against the measure simply to punish the Yakima County commissioners.
"You can't wish this problem away," Irwin said.
He explained that Proposition #1 makes it so the commissioners cannot use funds from the levy to replace any existing funding to the Sheriff's Office. He noted that the measure also includes a six-year sunset clause. He said if the measure is passed in November, it is something that will be brought back to the voters in six year's time. Irwin said he also plans on providing an annual report to citizens of the county, which will note how the funds are being spent.