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Yakima County (WA) Voters Reject Tax Hike to Pay for Empty Jail

For the right reasons—say, funding for education, children's healthcare, or effective law enforcement—voters will support tax increases, even in the hyperbolic throes of a so-called fiscal crisis.

Voters in Yakima County, Wash., however, were not inspired on Aug. 7, 2012 to support a tenth­-of-a-cent sales-tax hike to pay for a jail that sits empty. Though a few-thousand votes were still outstanding, the measure failed with more than 53% of voters rejecting the tax increase, a margin county officials said was too great to overcome.

The increase was sought by county commissioners to cover the nearly $3 million in remaining debt payments on three bond issues, including one from 2002 that built Yakima's newest county jail, which is now closed, The jail was built specifically to generate revenue, with local politicians counting on other cities around the state to house their prisoners there, But those other cities—including several in King County, who withdrew their prisoners in 2010 after their contracts expired—have found alternatives to incarceration to cut their own costs. As a result, Yakima County Jail Director Ed Campbell laid off staff and cut costs for prisoner healthcare and food, reducing his budget by more than $12 million.

The other two jail bonds were for security upgrades on Yakima's four-story downtown jail—which haven't yet begun—and the remodeling more than a decade ago of a former bowling alley to be used as a minimum-security jail, Though voter rejection of the sales-tax hike was clearly a referendum on the county's fiscal ineptitude and criminal-justice incompetence, one Yakima County official instead blamed the economy for the loss at the polls.

"In these difficult times, it is asking a lot of the taxpayers to willingly increase their taxes," said Rand Elliott, chairman of the county commissioners. "They have expressed themselves and we will move on to our next option."

Commissioners will now transfer $2.8 million from the county's road fund to the general fund to cover the budget shortage. The shift will increase property taxes on city residents by about $30 per year and create cutbacks in road construction in the county's rural areas.

Source: Yakima Herald


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