Editor’s note: This is the second in a two-part series about the financial difficulties facing the law and justice communities in Clallam County.
The debate over funding for the county’s law and justice efforts has spilled over into the cities.
Sequim Police Chief Bill Dickinson agreed there is a problem.
“I don’t think the public is aware the prosecutor is declining a gross number of cases,” he said.
Dickinson pointed out that only the county can prosecute felonies. When the county declines to take on a case, the city must prosecute the case as a misdemeanor.
As a result, Dickinson said, “felonies are being committed daily and not being prosecuted.”
Sequim City Attorney Craig Ritchie echoed Dickinson’s comments, saying, “A lot of the cases that are referred as felonies — usually because they are felonies — are declined on the basis of insufficient funds.”
As an example, he said, a recent possession of heroin case was sent back to the city with a comment from the prosecutor’s office that it didn’t involve a quantity sufficient to justify prosecution.
The city is limited to trying misdemeanors, “but there is no misdemeanor possession of heroin,” Ritchie said. “So we had to come up with a poor excuse for a misdemeanor, which is called possession of paraphernalia.”
“So if they have a baggie with some residue, that’s what we’re charging them with. That’s all we can do.”
“And then, because it’s our case, we pay the court costs. We pay the prosecutor. We pay the county for the District Court. Because it’s not a felony, we can’t send them to prison.”
“And guess what, we pay the county for the jail!”
Ritchie noted that Sequim citizens already pay the same taxes as county residents. Paying for the city’s court cases is additional.
The Clallam County Law and Justice Council, which is made up of representatives from both the county and the cities, last met nine months ago. Clallam County Sheriff Bill Benedict said when the subject of a county law and justice tax came up the representatives of the cities declined to support it, saying they lacked the authority to encumber their cities. “That was frustrating because they could have voted to support it,” Benedict said. “It appeared that everyone would abstain — so what message could we give the commissioners?”
Benedict considered making a pitch to the city councils but decided it wasn’t appropriate for someone in his position.
Benedict said the cities also declined to support the tax until they knew “every detail of every dime.” He said that was further frustrating.
“When I supported Sequim’s (proposed tax) for their public safety building, I didn’t know where every dime was going.”
Dickinson noted that under state law just one-third of a law and justice tax is required to go to criminal justice and fire protection. He said he could support a tax if the county clearly defines where the revenues will go.
“If they just want more taxes,” Dickinson said. “I wouldn’t.”
Sequim Mayor Ken Hays said, “I know that public safety is getting increasingly more costly, but they need to guarantee it all goes to public safety. People get frustrated when they tighten up their belts and then find out it’s not going for the agency or item it’s supposed to be going to.”
Both Dickinson and Sequim City Councilor Ted Miller said they are concerned that the failure to prosecute felonies as felonies could encourage more criminal activity.
“What if the city gets a reputation as a place where criminals can act with impunity?” Miller asked.
“Nobody wants a tax, including me. But with the law and justice tax, the prosecutor’s office could hire two or three more prosecutors. The problem goes away,” he said.
Benedict noted that when the Tax and Justice Council took up the issue, the Sequim City Council was considering passing its own law and justice tax, saying they likely weren’t interested in having two similar taxes on the same ballot measure.
In August, Sequim passed the tax, adding 1/10 of 1 percent to sales.
The funds will support building a new police station, including an emergency operations disaster center and space for services such as police patrols and crime prevention.
Ritchie said when considering the law and justice tax, the city “didn’t want to wait for the county. It seemed like it was important in the city — and 60 percent or so (of voters) agreed.”
Hays said the city was seeking a higher share than would derive from a county tax.
“We knew the county was thinking about it,” Hays said. “We wanted to make sure we got as much as possible for it.”
Hays added that the voters were fully apprised of the purpose of the tax.
“We made it clear that we would use 100 percent of the public safety tax for public safety,” he said.
In a recent interview, Clallam County Prosecutor Deb Kelly agreed her office has had to cut back on filing minor felony cases, with some sent to District Court as misdemeanors or referred to the city attorneys.
The felony caseload in general is more complex, she said. In 2008, about 37 percent of the caseload consisted of serious crimes against persons. Now those crimes constitute 47 percent of the caseload.
Kelly attributes some of this issue to the long-term effects of methamphetamine.
She also said recent court rulings make it more difficult for law enforcement and prosecutors to get drug cases prosecuted due to rules on searches.
While county departments make painful budget cuts, those court rulings require more resources to prosecute.
“I don’t see anybody addressing the issue of how much counties can spend on criminal justice,” she said.
Kelly said there aren’t enough resources to file all the cases that come across their desks and their strategy is to limit filings.
Deputy Prosecutor Mark Nichols agreed, saying, “We are stretched to the max.”
He said the cities are critical of his office for not processing the cases and said many have a “misbelief” that the decisions are based on a “desire to save pennies.”
“We’re just doing what we can.” He acknowledged, “The effect is the same.”
Ritchie said the prosecutor’s office is making the best of a bad situation. “The prosecutor is prioritizing based on crimes of violence against people — which is the right way to prioritize.”
Like most of the others in the debate, Ritchie laid much of the blame at the feet of the state Legislature.
“The state is scared to death that someone will say they raised taxes,” Ritchie said.
By passing a law allowing counties and cities to impose a law and justice tax, the Legislature “lateraled” to the county, he said.
“In fairness,” Ritchie said, “the state has set up the county and the city to be adversaries.”
Benedict, the county sheriff, said Clallam County temporarily has solved its fiscal difficulties with furloughs and concessions, which he described as “not a good way of doing it.”
He said the county almost certainly will have to reconsider a tax election, but added a caveat: “My belief is that the citizens of Clallam County are paying enough. If you’re going to raise taxes, there has to be a give-back.”
Benedict also took a swing at the federal system. “It will never happen, but we’re giving too much to the feds. Why should we be sending $3-4 million a year to the federal government when they give us back $1-2 million? I think it would be nice if we could leave the money locally.”
Benedict added, “We have an organization twice the size of Border Patrol and their budget is two-and-a-half times ours.”
Clallam County Administrator Jim Jones said a law and justice tax is another stopgap measure.
“Passing the tax won’t solve the problems for very long,” he said.
The tax would raise $1.8 million, which would at best only buy the departments two years before they are in the hole again, Jones said.
“The solution has to come from the Legislature recognizing counties have an unfair share of the cost of felony justice,” he said.
Changing the law won’t be easy, he said, because the current system is enshrined in the constitution.
But eventually the state will change, Jones said. “It will happen when a few counties go bankrupt because of law and justice.”