Our Voice: : Vote yes for Benton County public safety tax on Aug. 5 ballot

On Aug. 5, Benton County voters decide on a public safety tax, and regardless of the outcome, the election will have long-lasting, far-reaching consequences.

Either the stage will be set for 10 years of additional resources to protect some of our most successful crime-fighting programs or we'll put them in jeopardy.

It's an affordable plan. The proposed sales tax would raise the cost of buying things in Benton County by three-tenths of 1 percent, or 3 cents on a $10 purchase. And it will sunset after 10 years.

Those three pennies will raise about $9 million a year and provide Benton County voters 32 additional police officers, a gang-prevention program, mental health court, a judge and two prosecuting attorneys, and ensure the continuation of important programs such as drug court and the Metro Drug Task Force.

The population of Benton County has been growing while the police force has remained level. In Kennewick alone, it would take 25 additional officers to get back to the ratio of police-to-population that we had in 2002.The public safety tax would bring the city up from 1.2 officers per 1,000 residents to the state average of 1.4 officers per 1,000 people.

When people say they don't want more cops, they likely are thinking in terms of getting pulled over for speeding. They aren't considering the response time for the police to investigate a residential break in. They especially aren't thinking about a gunman near a school or a drive-by shooting.

Despite the ever-widening gap in protection, crime rates throughout the county haven't spiked. Benton County still is a safe place to live.

But that's changing.

Although the number of crimes has not risen significantly, the types of crime have changed.

We are seeing significantly more gang-related crimes, including shootings. These crimes take more resources to investigate and prosecute. Their urgency is eating away at our resources.

We need an adequate number of police just to keep the population safe. Right now, we're below that number.

But perhaps an even wiser investment in community safety is the prevention on the front end that this tax would pay for. National studies show that for every dollar spent on crime prevention, there is a $7 return to taxpayers.

Results in Benton County will vary, but it's clear that keeping kids out of gangs is a much better way to protect the community than prosecuting gang activity.

This tax would provide some money for programs to keep at-risk middle and elementary school kids, out of the system from the start.

It also would fund the mental health court.

Admittedly, we have an imperfect system when it comes to mental health. Ideally, we would be able to provide intervention for those with mental health issues and avoid the courts altogether.

But we just aren't there yet.

Mental health court gives people who have mental health issues and are at odds with the law a pathway to recovery. Locking them up does not give them that chance.

There is a small but vocal number of people who actively are opposed to this tax. They would jeopardize our quality of life to save a few dollars. Don't let them. Fill out and return your ballot.

The cost of this tax would run the average family of four about $87 a year. It's affordable, especially when you consider that the cost of doing nothing is expensive.

Seven year ago, voters rejected a public safety tax but officials have been able to pay for drug court, a gang task force and a metro drug force through federal grants and donations.

We can't count on that money in the future. Drug court survives as a nonprofit agency. A $100,000 gift from HAPO helped keep it alive. The Metro Drug Task Force was created with a $500,000 federal grant in 1988, but the federal contribution has decreased during the years, down to $145,000 this year. It's expected to disappear altogether.

We can't afford to allow these critical programs to disappear.

Ballots are being mailed to voters this week. It's your chance to be part of the solution.

No one wants higher taxes but sometimes that's the most cost-effective approach to challenges facing the community.

The Tri-City Herald recommends approving the Benton County public safety tax.