More Sheriff’s Office deputies will patrol Thurston County if voters approve a new sales tax in November.
The proposed “Public Safety Tax” is a two-tenths of 1% sales and use tax for law enforcement protection purposes, according to county documents. On Tuesday, the Board of County Commissioners unanimously approved placing the matter on the Nov. 7 ballots.
Prior to the vote, Sheriff Derek Sanders said the Sheriff’s Office is “significantly underfunded” and only has 37 out of 59 allotted patrol positions actively working. The county budgeted over $26.3 million in expenditures and 124.49 full-time equivalent positions for the Sheriff’s Office law enforcement division in 2023. Money from the new tax could add millions to that budget.
Sanders said his office now has the second lowest number of deputies per capita in Washington. That ranking is based on 2020 data collected by the Washington Association of Sheriffs and Police Chiefs, according to Leah Landon, the county’s Criminal Justice Regional Program Manager.
“The value that this Public Safety Tax could bring to the department is unprecedented,” Sanders said. “It has the ability to completely reshape and reimagine what the Thurston County Sheriff’s Office looks like.”
Data for 2022 shows Thurston County had 92 commissioned officers serving a population of about 146,270, meaning it had 0.63 commissioned officers per 1,000 residents. Landon said the 2022 data places Thurston County at 36 out of 39, but he determined the county was still the second to last after recently surveying several counties.
Thurston County’s total population exceeded 300,000 last year, but the Sheriff’s Office only serves unincorporated areas not served by city police departments.
If approved, 60% of the money received will be retained by the county and 40% will be distributed to local cities on a per-capita basis, according to county documents.
The county intends to use 75% of its portion to support law enforcement services and associated infrastructure, including facilities, per the documents. The remaining 25% would fund additional prosecution and public defense services and election security infrastructure.
“Ensuring the protection and safety of the residents of Thurston County is an essential priority,” Assistant County Manager Robert Gelder said. “The county Sheriff’s Office is in need of more law enforcement officers to patrol the county and keep our community safe.”
How will the Sheriff’s Office spend the money?
Sanders said he expects the tax to generate over $6 million a year for the Sheriff’s Office. That amount would allow him to hire 25 additional deputies, three sergeants to manage the deputies, four more detectives, a legal assistant and a financial operations assistant.
Two civil deputies could also be hired, Sanders said. This would allow the Sheriff’s Office to create a property abatement team that can better respond to “problem houses” such as those with health code violations, he said.
More staffing would allow the Sheriff’s Office to create additional internal teams, Sanders said, such as a full-time mental health response team, a full-service traffic enforcement team and a domestic violence response team.
Sanders added he could build a violence interdiction and property recovery team, which proactively seeks people wanted for serious violent felonies and property crimes, and an aviation division.
“A helicopter program would allow us to assist on search and rescue missions as well as to mitigate high speed pursuits,” Sanders said. “We would be able to terminate the chases at that point and then just arrest people once they park.”
The Sheriff’s Office has at least seven deputies on duty at any one time across its five patrol districts, Sanders said.
As a result, he said the deputies are often spread thin or overwhelmed, leading to extended response times. With the new funding, he hopes to increase the minimum staffing to 10.
It currently costs the county about $230,000 to train and bring a new deputy on board, Sanders said. In recent years, he said the county added a couple of deputies a year while neglecting support staff and other needs.
“Our finance department that pays our deputy sheriffs hasn’t seen a single personnel increase in 17 years,” Sanders said. “So, what you find is that when all you can ask for is the bare minimum to keep things running, everything else starts to fall apart too.”
Why a new tax?
Commissioner and Board Chair Carolina Mejia said a public safety tax is a “good mechanism” that has been used by many other counties.
“I know times are so difficult right now, but we’re seeing a lot of crime activity and there’s been a lot of demand for more deputies and less response time,” Mejia said. “This is one of the big problems that we’re trying to solve in our community.”
Commissioner Tye Menser said constraints on current county financing don’t allow for the level of service that Sanders wants. For example, he said the county is unable to raise employee salaries due to limits on property tax increases.
“Property tax is one of our key sources of income,” Menser said. “It’s capped at 1% (per year increase). There’s no exception to that for years of high inflation, so we’re not able to increase employee salaries at the rate of inflation.”
Menser said he’s “not a big fan” of sales tax, but this proposition is the only option the county has to increase service.
“I think it’s going to be a good thing for the county,” Menser said. “I absolutely believe it’s our responsibility to let the voters have that say because this is the only way it’s going to happen.”
Commissioner Gary Edwards echoed Menser’s point about increasing employee salary being limited and said the new tax is “sorely needed.”
“I’m not a big fan of taxes either, but I think we’re faced with a situation of necessity,” said Edwards, who served as Sheriff before being elected county commissioner.