Thurston County residents are set to vote on a new public safety tax in the November 7 general elections.
If approved, retail sales taxes throughout the county would increase by 0.2%, or two cents on every $10 in purchases. Funds would be used to improve law enforcement and prosecution services as the Thurston County Sheriff’s Office is currently struggling to keep up with public safety demands, said Sheriff Derek Sanders.
The Board of County Commissioners authorized the placement of the proposed tax into a ballot measure during last week’s meeting on Tuesday, July 18.
Sanders said that the public safety tax would generate around $6 million a year. Seventy-five percent of the tax would be used for law enforcement services and associated infrastructure while the remainder would be used to support protection and public defense services, as well as elections security infrastructure.
Sanders went on to elaborate on how the sheriff’s office is planning to spend the taxes, saying they plan to bring in 25 new deputy sheriffs, three sergeants, and four detectives.
The sheriff explained that the county ranks 38 out of 39 Washington countries in terms of deputies per capita. “It doesn't take much to overload Thurston County Sheriff's Office currently, in fact, it happens every single night,” Sanders said.
There are currently only 59 patrol positions, 37 of which are only actively working. There are also vacancies in the sheriff’s office, which Sanders attributed to the department being “borderline archaic.”
They aim to increase its minimum staffing from seven to 10 deputies for the approximately 300,000 total citizens or 150,000 unincorporated residents so that there are always two available deputies for every one of the five patrol districts.
They are also looking to hire two civil deputies that will allow them to create a property abatement team to help property owners deal with code violations.
The additional employees would also allow the sheriff’s office to expand its mental health co-responder team and create a domestic violence response team, as well as a violence interdiction and property recovery team which would find people wanted for serious violent felonies and property crimes.
Sanders also spoke about a new aviation division to allow them to deploy a helicopter for search and rescue missions and high-speed pursuits.
Supporting the additional employees would be one new legal assistant and one financial operations assistant. Sanders noted that their finance department had not seen an increase in its personnel for 17 years.
“The value that this public safety tax could bring in the department is unprecedented,” Sanders said. “It has the ability to completely reshape and reimagine what Thurston County Sheriff's Office looks like. It really takes us from a point of barely making ends meet to actually expanding programs that taxpayers can feel and creating a sense of safety within Thurston County as a whole.”
All three BoCC commissioners supported the proposed tax, with Commissioner Carolina Meija noting that a lot of Washington State counties have their own public safety tax.
Commissioners Gary Edwards and Tye Menser said that they were not fans of new taxes but believed that the community needed the public safety tax and that it is ultimately up to the public to decide whether they agree with it.
Menser said that the current structure of county financing restricts them from having the level of service that Sanders is proposing.
“Property tax is one of our key sources of income. It's capped at 1% [increase per year],” Menser said as an example. “There's no exception to that for high-inflation years so we're not able to increase employee salaries at the rate of inflation.”
“We've looked at all different options but this [tax] is the one that's most directly related,” Menser added.
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