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Aug. 7, 2022

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How would Clark County’s new public safety tax revenue be spent?

Officials outline county’s needs during forum; voters will decide question in August

By , Columbian staff writer
Published:

“No one is trying to sell you on this tax, one way or the other.”

With that statement, Clark County Council Chair Karen Bowerman began Thursday’s public forum on the proposed 0.1 percent public safety tax voters will be deciding on in August. The council approved placing the tax measure on the ballot during its May 3 meeting.

The hourlong forum featured appearances from Sheriff Chuck Atkins, County Prosecutor Tony Golik and Finance Director Mark Gassaway.

“The public has told us many, many times that they want to have body and dash cams for our sheriff’s deputies,” Bowerman said.

She said the costs for purchasing the cameras and related equipment will be covered by one-time funds. Those funds came through the American Rescue Plan Acts funds awarded by the federal government during the COVID-19 pandemic. However, finding the funds to cover the ongoing costs — like additional personnel in multiple departments, file storage and filling public-records requests — will be the difficult part.

The council previously said the county does not have the funds available to absorb those costs and would need to pass a sales tax measure to create the needed revenue

Bowerman said state law provides only two sales tax options for funding body and dash cameras. The first option, a juvenile detention facilities and jails sales tax, was put on the ballot last November but failed to pass. Under this option, only the county would receive funds generated by the tax.

The second option, a public safety sales tax, will be on the Aug. 2 primary ballot. This option shares the revenue between the county and cities within the county, with the county receiving 60 percent and cities receiving 40 percent of the revenue. The sales tax would generate an estimated $12 million annually.

Atkins said having body and dash cameras for the sheriff’s deputies would benefit both Clark County and its residents, making both safer in the long run.

“It’s really an essential tool of the sheriff’s office that we are fully in support of. We believe that it is something that would allow us to be more transparent to our community that clearly wants that,” Atkins said. “It’s something we’ve been working on for a couple of years and won’t be hard to implement.”

Atkins said having body and dash cameras would increase accountability and help officers evaluate how they work. He said the cameras wouldn’t be used only in the field but also during training.

“We’re not perfect. We’re human like everybody else,” Atkins added. “We will see things we should be doing differently when we view these and then can use as a training tool to make our deputies better.”

Jail expanded, retrofitted

Atkins also stressed the importance of updating the jail. He said it is very old and no longer meets the county’s needs. The jail was built in 1984 and designed for 306 beds — with 20 percent of those beds left open for daily transfers — but has been expanded and retrofitted to hold 490 beds. At one time, it held 640 inmates “just because of necessity,” Atkins said, which required double and triple bunking.

He said the jail was cut back to 250 beds because of the COVID-19 pandemic to ensure that inmates and staff could meet safety protocols but is now back up to an average of 430 inmates.

“We are above what I feel comfortable with right now. We have maxed the jail out, and there is very little room,” Atkins said. “The jail today is no longer a jail of yesterday where misdemeanors would be brought in and held for 10, 15, 30 or 60 days and released. Virtually no misdemeanors are in the jail. It is a felony jail, and it is filled with hardcore felons, and it’s a tough place for them.”

He said that while ideally the county would build a whole new jail, the additional funds from the sales tax could be used to retrofit the existing jail to meet the needs of the next 20 years.

Even without the sales tax, Clark County is likely to end the year with more money in its coffers than expected. County Manager Kathleen Otto said general fund revenues, which are driven — in part — by sales tax collections, will be higher than expected.

“Our finance team, internally, continually reviews those revenues that are coming in. Right now, property tax is pretty stable, our other revenues are seeing a little bit of a decline and our sales tax is performing in an unprecedented manner,” she said.

Otto noted that more than 75 percent of general fund revenues go to law and justice activities, which include the sheriff’s office, county jail, prosecuting attorney’s office, indigent defense fund and other entities.

As of May, sales tax revenues were above what was budgeted, with much of the increase tied to taxes collected from online sales. Otto said that if the trend continues through the end of the year, Clark County would be looking at a one- time increase above $10 million. Sales tax revenues were originally budgeted at $47 million, but the estimate now stands at $58 million, she said.

“Even though it’s not anticipated, at this time, that sales tax revenue will increase at the same rate in years to come, the finance team is continuing to work on updating the general fund forecast to reflect the additional revenue,” Otto said.

But she cautioned that there are many factors to consider before spending that additional revenue.

“There are programs and services and capital needs that have not been fully funded, as the county has been in a structural deficit for years; a structural deficit is when our expenses continually exceed our revenues,” Otto said. “There are projects, such as preventative maintenance, that have not been addressed and have now become a liability.”

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