Yes on sales tax for 911

Asked about the relative merits of the sales tax hikes that have come before Kitsap voters of late, Cencom director Ron McAffee offered a little gentle

parochialism on behalf of his agency.

“We like to think of 911 as the guys in the white hats,” he smiled, in a meeting with Kitsap Newspaper Group editors this week. Director McAffee was on hand to discuss the one-tenth of a cent sales tax hike that Kitsap County Central Communications will put before voters in a special mail-only election on April 22. Ballots should appear in island mailboxes next week.

As reported elsewhere in this edition, the measure would raise about $2.7 million in 2004, growing with the economy and replacing a five-year, $11.5 million property tax assessment approved by voters two years ago for a much-needed new 911 dispatch center in Bremerton. After that building is paid off, the sales tax would support the agency’s general operations.

Cencom are the folks at the other end of the line when Bainbridgers call 911 to report fires, crimes, medical emergencies and such. Because the need for a modern facility is acute and the service to islanders obvious, we urge Bainbridge voters to say Yes for 911 on April 22.

But to ensure fair consideration, a little context is probably in order.

We were deliberate in asking McAffee to discuss his agency’s sales tax proposal relative to similar measures that have of late appeared on the ballots of county voters.

Indeed, it will mark the third time in two years that Kitsap voters have been asked to raise their own sales tax. In May 2001, voters gave the nod to a three-tenths of a cent hike to restore Kitsap Transit service lost to I-695. (Bainbridge support was overwhelming.) Last fall, a measure by the Kitsap Public Facilities District to develop new athletic facilities (including an all-weather turf field on Bainbridge) was soundly defeated, but that agency still entertains hopes of coming back with a new proposal, perhaps a year from now.

Now comes Cencom with its one-tenth of a cent try, to be followed this fall by Kitsap Transit again, this time three-tenths of a cent for a passenger-only ferry venture. With a current sales tax rate of 0.085, Kitsap County now sits in fourth place in the state behind Snohomish County (0.089), and King and Pierce counties (0.088). Passage of both the Cencom and transit measures would vault Kitsap into a tie for the dubious top slot.

While this newspaper generally considers sales taxes regressive, there is a certain appeal in fractional hikes to support public services. Their impact is diffuse – in this case, 20 cents on your next $200 spree at Costco. And they can ease the tax burden on property owners, picking up a nickel here and there from tourists and shoppers from across the county line.

But when will Kitsap voters reach their limit? McAffee concedes that he has run into opposition less on the merits of Cencom’s need, than on its proximity to the upcoming foot-ferry hike. He was circumspect about agencies jockeying to get to the ballot ahead of each other, asking rhetorically, “Should we have acquiesced to Kitsap Transit?” The Cencom levy, he suggested, follows the intent expressed in recent statewide initiatives: If taxing districts want more money, they need to ask the voters. The voters can pick and choose.

Yet our capacity or willingness for sales tax hikes may be about to crest, and Cencom may be the measure in which voters really decide not just what they’ll get, but what they’ll forgo. Worth thinking about, even as you vote Yes for 911.

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