Voters to decide dollars for juvenile justice center

July 23, 2012

By Warren Kagarise

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NEW — 3:20 p.m. July 23, 2012

King County voters could decide next month to increase the property tax rate in order to prepare the criminal justice system for the decades ahead.

The ballot measure Proposition 1 asks voters to approve a $200 million property tax levy to fund a replacement for the aging Youth Services Center, a juvenile detention facility in Seattle.

“We have a fairly good court system. We have a good prosecution office. We have good sheriff’s deputies. But this facility is the leak in the pipeline,” King County Councilman Reagan Dunn said in a July 13 interview. “For criminal justice to work effectively — especially with the increase in crime we’re seeing right now — all aspects of that pipeline need to be operating effectively.”

Dunn is Newcastle’s representative on the council.

If the nine-year levy is passed, homeowners can expect to pay about 7 cents per $1,000 of assessed value, or about $20 per year for a home assessed at $350,000 in 2013.

The replacement plan is a long-held goal for county leaders. Officials started planning to replace the Youth Services Center years ago. The project has ranked as the county’s highest-priority capital project since 2008.

The existing Youth Services Center is not designed to handle a hectic caseload. Judges and commissioners at the juvenile court on site handle 3,700 cases per year at the facility. Officials said courtrooms and waiting areas lack enough space for juvenile offenders, family members, attorneys and others.

The detention facility houses about 65 children and teenagers from throughout King County.

The proposal calls for replacing decaying buildings constructed in the 1950s, 1970s and 1990s. Officials deemed the electrical, plumbing, and heating and cooling systems as beyond repair.

“It’s a facility that when I joined the council eight years ago was a dump then, and it’s in a very serious state of disrepair,” Dunn said.

Officials said replacement costs for the systems could reach more than $20 million.

“It’s just like an old car — you keep trying to repair it, but after awhile it’s more economical to buy a new one,” Dunn added.

(Dunn, a Republican, is running for state attorney general against a council colleague, Democrat Bob Ferguson.)

If voters approve the measure, a replacement facility is scheduled to open in 2019.

Measure attracts support

The latest ballot measure comes after a failed attempt to raise replacement dollars. In 2010, voters rejected a broader sales tax package meant to raise dollars for criminal justice services and replace the Youth Services Center.

“We did a lot of work to scale back the size of the project,” Dunn said. “It wouldn’t have been fair to the taxpayers to propose the Taj Mahal, so we proposed what I think is in the middle range of what was necessary for voters to consider.”

Councilwoman Kathy Lambert joined Ferguson and councilmen Larry Gossett and Joe McDermott to introduce the legislation. The council agreed in a unanimous decision to place Proposition 1 on the August ballot.

The measure attracted broad support from leaders in local government and the criminal justice system.

County Executive Dow Constantine, Prosecutor Dan Satterberg and King County Superior Court judges support the measure.

The authors behind the statement supporting Proposition 1 in the county voters’ include former U.S. Attorney John McKay and former state Supreme Court Justice Bobbe Bridge.

“Despite decrepit conditions, our court is leading in innovations for juvenile and family justice,” the statement reads. “The new CFJC will better serve families and child advocates by co-locating services like medical treatment, counseling and placement. The new design will improve safety, privacy and dignity. Combining services will save millions in duplicative service providers and offices.”

Opposition to Proposition 1 is more difficult to ascertain, especially because most voters did not learn about the measure until ballots arrived.

The voters’ pamphlet statement against the measure does not directly address the juvenile detention facility and instead focuses on property tax increases in general.

“Again, the council has declined to propose a sales tax increase, opting instead for the property tax increase it’s confident will pass because homeowners constitute less than half of registered voters,” reads the statement against Proposition 1. “Further, since the council is indebted to public service unions for the support which re-elects its members, there’s been no action to reassign any governmental service to the private sector where it might be delivered more economically.”

The bid to increase the property tax rate in a difficult economy initially gave Dunn pause, too.

“I am going to vote for it,” he said. “I wasn’t certain when I voted it out of the council that I was going to support it, but I knew it was a serious enough proposal that it needed to go to the voters.”

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