Spokane County wants voters to fund a new jail and other public safety measures with a sales tax increase

click to enlarge Spokane County wants voters to fund a new jail and other public safety measures with a sales tax increase
Young Kwak photo
A new jail would bring 800 more jail beds and enable the closure of Geiger Corrections Center, but the current jail (above) would stay open.

This November, voters throughout Spokane County will be asked if they're willing to pay another 20 cents in sales tax on every $100 they spend to invest in criminal justice, public safety and behavioral health.

The 0.2 percent sales and use tax increase would last for 30 years and is expected to bring in about $1.7 billion. Of that, 60 percent would go to the county and 40 percent would go to cities and towns on a per-capita basis.

The county intends to spend at least half of the $1 billion it would receive to construct multiple new jail buildings behind the current downtown facility. In addition to building space for about 800 jail beds and enabling the closure of Geiger Corrections Center, the county plans to build a community corrections center where offenders could access programming such as anger management, GED courses, parenting classes, addiction treatment, job training and more.

Measure 1 was approved for the November ballot by County Commissioners Josh Kerns and Al French in December 2022. (The board hadn't expanded yet to five members, and Commissioner Mary Kuney was absent but supports the measure going to voters this year.)

During that meeting, Kerns said that a new jail has been discussed for many years, with data gathering and expert input at many steps, including during the unique challenges of the pandemic.

"We have kicked this political football around for over a decade, and it's time for the voters' voices to be heard," Kerns said. "You will hear people that will tell you, 'We do not have enough data to know if we need a new jail.' That is a red herring, and it is a lie."

Kerns' prediction of detail-oriented naysayers has proven partially true.

Knowing that the county would need to inform the elections office by Aug. 17 in order to delay the ballot measure, progressive Commissioners Amber Waldref and Chris Jordan — who joined the expanded commission in January — asked their three conservative counterparts in July to postpone the ask to next August.

Waldref and Jordan said that would give the county time to compile a more detailed plan showing how the rest of the money would be spent, which could make it easier to pitch to voters.

"I've worked on several ballot measures and levies when I was a [Spokane City] Council member," Waldref tells the Inlander. "You really have to have a well-defined plan of where you're going to put the dollars. The voters need that to be able to make an informed decision."

Waldref says a delay would also allow cities and the county to talk about coordinated public safety and behavioral health investments at a time when they're already talking about a coordinated response to homelessness.

But French, Kerns and Kuney voted to table any further discussion on changes to the ballot measure until after the November election.

In another bid to beat the deadline, Spokane City Council President Lori Kinnear, Council member Zack Zappone and a staff representative from the corrections officers' union sent a letter last week asking the commissioners to delay the measure so cities could plan for the revenue they'll receive.

"Forty percent of the $1.7 billion goes to municipalities," Zappone says in an interview. "We have had zero conversations at the city about what we should spend that money on."

Zappone says he reached out to small city leaders and found that some didn't even realize the measure would be on the November ballot.

"This is about $700 million of funding that has no plan whatsoever from the municipalities," Zappone says. "We agree that something needs to be done about the jail. ... But the problem is we have no plan for all of the money."

However, Kerns says the county has presented its jail plan to the cities that would receive most of that pot of money — Spokane and Spokane Valley — and it's up to them to figure out their plans. He says that if the measure passes, cities will have several months before the tax starts getting collected in April 2024.

"We have a jail that is regularly overcrowded or at redlight status, meaning it cannot accept any additional inmates," Kerns says. "These dollars, if this measure passes, will be there to alleviate the constraints."

The county plans to pay for programming in the new space to reduce recidivism and help break the cycle of incarceration, Kerns says.

"We want people to not be committing crimes. We don't make money when people are in jail," Kerns says. "We would much rather people be out as contributing members of society."

There's an expectation that the cities will contribute part of their share toward the cost of the new jail facilities, but those details haven't been hammered out yet and likely wouldn't be until after the November election, Kuney told reporters at a news conference on Monday.

"Public safety relies heavily on accountability," Spokane County Sheriff John Nowels told reporters. "Measure 1 will allow us to build a facility that is both safe and humane and also allow us to provide treatment options and education options, and the capacity to get people the help that they need." ♦