Officials mull sales tax for emergency services

Police and fire officials and the Kitsap County Commissioners agree a local option sales tax measure, intended to provide stable funding for 911 emergency services in Kitsap, should be placed on the ballot next spring.

But there’s no consensus yet as to how the roughly $2.8 million generated annually from the sales tax, if approved by Kitsap voters, would be allocated.

“We really do need a stable funding source for emergency services in Kitsap County to reduce the financial burden of user jurisdictions, thereby freeing that money up for them to use on other critical government services,” said CenCom director Ron McAffee. “Kitsap County alone contributed $1.1 million for services and Bremerton contributed about $600,000.”

Officials estimate fees paid by subscribers to CenCom could drop by as much as 40 percent if the sales tax measure is approved by voters, a potentially appealing point, since many jurisdictions are facing budget woes this year.

Yet the devil is in the details.

Some local law enforcement officials say the one-tenth of 1 percent sales tax — or one penny on every $10 purchase — should be used to help pay for the new $10.5 million emergency 911 services building to be constructed at the Emergency Readiness Center in west Bremerton.

Last fall Kitsap voters overwhelmingly approved a property tax lid lift of 16 cents per $1,000 of assessed value for five years to fund the construction of a new seismically-stable CenCom facility in the wake of the February temblor and the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

Those law enforcement officials, including Port Orchard Police Chief Al Townsend, propose removing that lid lift from property taxes and using the sales tax — if approved next spring— instead to pay off by 2007 the remaining debt service on the new CenCom building.

“We don’t want to look like we lied to people,” Townsend said at a recent meeting among police and fire chiefs and the county commissioners. “That is how we sold it, from a public safety standpoint.”

Townsend said the assumption was that if the state Legislature ever approved providing Kitsap with the ability to ask for a local sales tax increase, and if voters approved of the increase, those revenues would fund the new building.

Eventually, revenue streams from the sales tax would be used toward operations, freeing up money normally provided by member jurisdictions, he said.

But two of the county commissioners raised concerns about that proposal, saying that assumption wasn’t necessarily made last year or voiced in other areas of the county.

And, when such statements were made in the south end of the county, that was before jurisdictions were grappling with serious budget constraints.

“We are having serious budget problems this year and we are working on going out to explain that to the public,” said county commissioner Endresen. “It’s not just that we can’t add programs — we actually have to cut.”

County officials suggested allocating the additional sales tax revenues solely to the operation of 911 emergency services in Kitsap County and not the new building.

With the advent of Initiative 747 restrictions, whereby annual property tax increases are capped at no more than 1 percent, many jurisdictions that are subscribers to CenCom, including the county, are facing revenue constraints.

The Kitsap County Commissioners have asked all their department heads to propose cutting 10 percent from their budgets next year and by another 5 percent for 2004.

“We’re working in a new territory now where we are cutting beneath the surface,” said county commissioner Tim Botkin.

County officials say it might be wisest to allow the sales tax revenues to be used immediately for a stable, continuing source of income for emergency 911 services.

But that doesn’t sit comfortably with some law enforcement officials.

That discomfort has some history.

In 1996, Kitsap voters said no to a $18.5 million property tax levy measure for a new emergency headquarters, as well as an 800-megahertz trunked radio system.

“The message from property owners at that time was that everyone uses 911, not just property owners,” McAffee has said. “So we went back to the drawing board to come up with another plan.”

Since that time, Kitsap County, law enforcement officers and fire districts have lobbied the Legislature for a local option sales tax.

By 2001, the effort was still unsuccessful.

Then, the February earthquake rattled the existing CenCom building, causing some significant damage, and the CenCom policy board and county commissioners placed a stripped down property tax levy — for a $10.5 million bond — on the fall ballot.

The Sept. 11 terrorist attacks touched off an outcry for stepped up emergency services nationwide, and voters overwhelmingly approved the tax here in Kitsap.

In 2002, the legislature, with help from all nine Kitsap lawmakers, approved HB 1477 that allows counties to ask for sales tax increases to provide funding for emergency services.

The legislative steering committee of the Washington State Association of Counties, of which Endresen is a member, helped lobby for the bill’s passage.

Emergency service professionals who also helped lobby for the authority intended any revenues raised to be used as a stable funding source, as well as for the new CenCom building.

“We did market this as money that would go back to the people if the sales tax authority was approved,” said county commissioner Jan angel. “But you do have to be financially responsible and show the strategy for what you’re doing.”

Fire and law enforcement officials in Kitsap plan to talk with their respective jurisdictions about their thoughts on the proposed ballot measure.

Within the next month, county, fire and police officials plan to meet again to iron out any details.

The proposed sales tax measure can’t go on the ballot without the commissioners’ blessing.

Bottom line, officials want to reconcile any differences soon, and present a united message to voters throughout the county on how the proposed sales tax revenue would be allocated, if approved next spring.

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