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Originally published February 11, 2010 at 9:51 PM | Page modified February 11, 2010 at 10:07 PM

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County sales-tax increase discussed for justice system

King County's elected criminal-justice leaders, warning of a public-safety "catastrophe" unless police and courts get more money, are testing the waters for a sales-tax increase of up to 3 cents on a $10 purchase.

Seattle Times staff reporter

$126 million

Estimated annual revenue from additional 0.3 percent sales tax

$60

Estimated annual cost to a family of four

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King County's elected criminal-justice leaders, warning of a public-safety "catastrophe" unless police and courts get more money, are testing the waters for a sales-tax increase of up to 3 cents on a $10 purchase.

The increase would push the Seattle area's sales-tax rate — already among the highest in the nation — from 9.5 percent to as much as 9.8 percent.

If approved by voters in the August primary election, the added tax would prevent more job cuts in the sheriff's and prosecutor's offices, and in District and Superior courts, Sheriff Sue Rahr and County Prosecutor Dan Satterberg said Thursday.

It also could replace the dilapidated Youth Services Center in Seattle.

Quiet talks about a possible proposal became more public Wednesday night when Rahr and Satterberg made a presentation to officials from 27 cities at a meeting of the Suburban Cities Association's Public Issues Committee.

"We are building a coalition with the cities" for a ballot measure, Rahr said in an interview.

Proposing to raise taxes amid high unemployment and when the Legislature is also considering tax increases, Rahr said, means "we have to make our case" that the needs are great and the money will be well spent.

The Metropolitan King County Council would decide whether to put a measure on the ballot.

Rahr and Satterberg have been working on a proposal for weeks with Superior Court Presiding Judge Bruce Hilyer and District Court Presiding Judge Barbara Linde.

The four said they don't yet know what size tax would be supported by other county and city officials, but they plan to announce a specific proposal Feb. 23.

If voters approve the additional 0.3 percent tax, Satterberg said, the tax would cost a family of four about $60 a year. It would raise $126 million or more a year, with 40 percent going to cities and 60 percent to the county.

At least one-third of the amount would have to be spent on criminal justice or fire protection, under state law.

The rest of the county's share could be used to preserve public-health services and restore county funding for human services, advocates said.

Unless taxes are raised, the county's general fund will face $150 million in cumulative budget cuts in 2011 and 2012, Hilyer said.

"Nobody believes we can squeeze $150 million in efficiencies. We're stuck with an antiquated system of revenues the county is built on. ... We need to put this on the ballot before we have a budget catastrophe."

Without more revenue, Hilyer said, court security will be at risk, Family Court Services eliminated and other "essential" jobs lost.

Criminal-justice agencies can't escape major cuts because they account for three-quarters of the county's general fund, the officials said.

The Sheriff's Office, which has already eliminated its vice, identity-theft and domestic-violence units, now faces the prospect of closing storefront offices and reducing patrols, Rahr said. "We're talking about devastating cuts in the future."

Linde said District Court is on "the brink" of having to eliminate probation services, and Satterberg said his office is facing the possibility of laying off more prosecutors.

Federal Way Mayor Linda Kochmar said she believes the criminal-justice officials are making "a strong case" for a tax increase, but added she doesn't know if her colleagues on the City Council will agree with her.

Other officials were more cautious.

Seattle Mayor Mike McGinn's spokesman, Mark Matassa, said the mayor is focused on the waterfront sea wall and the property-tax increase he is seeking from voters to replace it, and "hasn't addressed" a possible sales-tax increase.

Bellevue spokesman Tim Waters said city officials are "just learning about" the possible ballot issue and haven't briefed the City Council.

County Council Chairman Bob Ferguson, who opposed a sales-tax increase last year, said it would be "premature" for him to endorse or oppose the emerging proposal.

But with a large shortfall looming in next year's budget, he said, "I don't think we can make $60 million in cuts in a way that the average King County citizen would find acceptable."

County Executive Dow Constantine, who in last year's election campaign said taxes shouldn't be raised during a severe recession, is focusing his attention on steps that will cut spending, spokesman Frank Abe said.

"That still leaves a large gap that must be addressed," Abe said. "He looks forward to a thoughtful dialogue on this issue."

County Councilmember Julia Patterson said it is "a terrible time for a tax increase, but it's also a terrible time to be cutting sheriff's deputies and the efficiency of our court system and those fundamental human services that keep people out of jail and save their lives."

Keith Ervin: 206-464-2105 or kervin@seattletimes.com

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