There are a number of concerns with the public safety tax being proposed by the Board of Thurston County Commissioners. This measure proposes a significant increase in our local sales tax and an unprecedented 35% increase in local police, with zero public input. The reasoning given to justify this new tax is inaccurate, vague, and convoluted. Voters should reject this tax and send it back to the drawing board.
Perhaps most concerning is that there was virtually no public process leading up to this proposal. The first most people heard about it was when it was reported in The JOLT and The Olympian in late July, just prior to the Council voting it onto the ballot on July 27th. This only gave one week for any opponents of the tax to submit a statement to the voters pamphlet, all just before the primary election when most people's attention was diverted. This feels manipulative and undemocratic.
This proposal could have been a great opportunity for a community conversation on public safety. There should have been public hearings where different voices could be heard, information gathered, education provided, alternative solutions offered, and a more balanced, detailed proposal set forth. Instead, we got a last-minute, vague proposal that is missing key details for voters to make an informed decision.
Another concern is that the alleged dire shortage of currently budgeted deputy positions appears to be exaggerated. Explanations are lacking for why such a dramatic increase in numbers of officers is needed, and what the money will actually be used for. Rather than facts, Sheriff Sanders is relying more on scare tactics, playing on people's fears about crime and slow emergency response times.
Sheriff Sanders claims that Thurston County has the second lowest rate of deputies per thousand residents in the state (.63 commissioned deputies per thousand residents), but looking at the widely referenced data from the Washington State Association of Sheriffs and Police Chiefs, it can be seen that Thurston County is within the norm for the large urban counties in the state, which as a rule spend less per capita than the smaller rural counties due to their higher populations. For example, the rates in Pierce County and Clark County are .53 and .57 respectively, both lower than Thurston's .63. King County is .69 and Kitsap .67, which are slightly higher. With the 32 additional officers being proposed added to the current 92, this will push Thurston counties rate up it .85, far higher than any other comparably sized county.
And what reason is given for the need for this large increase in police numbers? Sanders says officers are spread thin or overwhelmed, leading to extended response times. Yet he also admits that he has only 37 out of 59 budgeted patrol positions actively working. Might not this explain why deputies are spread too thin? How could we even determine if we needed to budget for 32 additional officers when we haven't even hired the ones that have already been budgeted for?
Neither has Sanders been clear about how the money will be spent. We are provided with a laundry list of things he hopes to use it for, like helicopters, a full-time mental health response team, a full-service traffic enforcement team, and a domestic violence response team, among other things. But the proposal is notably short on specifics; for example, how much exactly will go to hire more deputies and buy helicopters vs mental health teams? Voters deserve to know what they are voting for, and the county has not earned their trust in putting such an incomplete and ill-defined proposal on the ballot.
~ Jeff Sowers, Thurston County
Jeff Sowers teaches science and math at a public high school, is the former chair of the Thurston County Democrats (2020-2022) and is the current chair of the South Salish Progressive Alliance.
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