County Councilmember discusses public safety concerns after Prop 1 failure

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County Councilman Terry Ryan addresses the Edmonds Chamber of Commerce on Thursday. (Photo by Natalie Covate)
County Councilman Terry Ryan addresses the Edmonds Chamber of Commerce on Thursday. (Photo by Natalie Covate)

With the Snohomish County-wide Proposition 1 failing in the Aug. 2 primary election, public safety became the main focus of a presentation given by County Councilmember Terry Ryan during the Edmonds Chamber of Commerce meeting on Thursday morning. Ryan’s “State of the County” address follows a trend of “State of” speeches given in recent months by presenters at the Edmonds Chamber.

The county-wide public safety tax would have raised sales tax by 0.2 percent. After all ballots were counted, it failed by a difference of 348 votes, or 0.26 percent of the vote. Of the 146,601 ballots returned in Snohomish County, 15,696 did not vote either way on the county-wide Prop 1.

“Prop 1 was an effort to get ahead of the curve on heroin and homelessness,” Ryan said.

Ryan said he is often asked why the county doesn’t just fix it. He said the biggest problem is money, as law and justice services such as the sheriff’s office, jail and court, already make up about 75 percent of the general fund budget.

“Twenty years ago, that number was 56 percent,” Ryan said. “It’s growing faster than our ability to deal with it.”

Growth in other departments, he said, has been much smaller, closer to 10 percent.

Proposition 1 was determined to be the best way to deal with the growing need of law and justice services, as it would bring in more general fund dollars that could be allocated to those services.

An outside consulting agency was brought in before Prop 1 was created to evaluate the Snohomish County Sheriff’s Office. That agency determined 44 more deputies were needed to provide adequate service to the areas served by the department.

“Most deputies in south county have about four minutes per hour to fill out paperwork,” Ryan said.

An unincorporated area near Mill Creek also sees about four times as many car prowls as Mill Creek, which has its own police department.

The true target of Prop 1 and one of the biggest concerns for county officials is the area’s heroin epidemic.

“The heroin epidemic is real and it’s frightening,” Ryan said. “We have a serious problem with property crime in Snohomish County. People need to feed their habit so they are breaking into cars, breaking into houses and stealing things.”

The county’s needle exchange program now receives more than one million needles per year.

According to Ryan, recent surveys have shown that the population most at risk for heroin addiction are 15- to 17-year-old girls.

“We need to do more,” Ryan said. “We need to do better.”

There are services available to those seeking help, such as through the Snohomish County Sheriff’s Office Department of Neighborhoods, but Ryan said the county has work to do to fix a broken system that arrests homeless addicts and releases them without rehabilitation.

“We will do what we can with some difficult decisions,” Ryan said. Staff reductions may be necessary to keep the jail and other justice services funded, he said.

Another struggle is that some county funding must be used for specific services. For example, the county’s lodging tax must go to economic development and cannot be used for public safety.

Even though public safety was the primary focus of Ryan’s presentation Thursday, he also discussed some successes. Tourism brought in about one billion dollars last year, and large businesses in the county like Boeing seem to indicate economic development.

Ryan concluded with a message of optimism.

“We have good people that are dedicated public servants,” Ryan said. “We are dedicated to get it right.”

–By Natalie Covate

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