It’s not exactly a put-up-or-shut-up scenario, but the good citizens of Okanogan County may have some ’splainin’ to do if a proposed sales tax increase to support upgrades to the county’s juvenile detention facility is defeated at the polls on Nov. 7.
After all, the ballot measure is ultimately a response to spirited citizen activism in support of keeping the juvenile facility where it is, with necessary improvements. The existing facility has been in use for more than 40 years with few upgrades. It’s going to stay put, and it’s going to need funds. Hence, a “yes” vote seems consistent with public sentiment.
To refresh our memories of relatively recent history, the previous board of county commissioners suggested back in 2016 that the county consider turning over operation of the facility to a private contractor near Spokane. The rationale, in part, was that the Okanogan facility needed major improvements and there was no money available, and the building’s structural problems could create liabilities for the county. Previous boards of commissioners had considered and rejected similar proposals.
I recall noting at the time that if there were more than three people in the county who thought that shipping juvenile offenders across the state might be a grand idea, they weren’t speaking up.
But lots of people who thought it fell egregiously short of a grand idea spoke up in opposition to moving the facility.
In June 2016, the commissioners decided, after a long fact-finding process that included presentations by the county’s juvenile facilities staff and judges, by representatives from facilities in other counties, and cost comparisons, to keep the juvenile facility in the county. So give them credit for listening to the public’s concerns and reacting responsibly. It should be noted, in light of some recent arguments supporting the tax increase and referencing the commissioners’ earlier proposal, that moving the facility is no longer an option that anyone is considering.
The previous board’s decision still left the detention facility with its defects, and limited means of addressing them. The facilities were evaluated earlier this year to help determine priorities for improvements.
The current commissioners are asking Okanogan voters to approve an increase of 1/10 of 1 percent in the county’s sales tax, which would add 10 cents to a $100 purchase. The tax increase would collect approximately $640,000 annually, with proceeds to be used solely to maintain, repair, equip and finance the facility. State law allows counties to increase the sales tax by up to 1/10 of 1 percent specifically for juvenile detention facilities and jails.
In the greater scheme of things, $640,000 a year isn’t a lot of money considering previous estimates that it would cost upwards of $20 million for a new county justice facility. But the tax increase could make an almost immediate difference in how juvenile offenders are housed, and what educational and rehabilitative programs could be provided for them.
You’ll read elsewhere in this week’s issue that the commissioners are looking for ways to cut the county’s operational budget for 2018. There’s little wiggle room in that budget to find adequate funds for the juvenile detention facility.
That’s where the voters come in. This is a question of local self-determination and the willingness of residents to support worthwhile programs. Not all tax increases are evil, and the tangible benefits of the proposed sales tax increase will be evident to taxpayers.
Is it worth a dime added to your next $100 purchase to help ensure that Okanogan county’s juvenile offenders get a better chance at succeeding in society as adults? I think so.