Lewis County voters again asked to support sales tax increase to fund 911 call center


While the scores of emergency vehicles parked outside the Lewis County Courthouse Tuesday morning weren’t responding to an active emergency, supporters of a proposal to increase the county’s sales tax to fund the 911 call center painted a picture of a situation they say is just as dire.

“I personally do support our public safety and first responders, firefighters, police and medical personnel,” said Anthony Mixer, president of Citizens for Lewis County 911 political action committee (PAC). “We need to support our public safety in a time like this in whatever way, shape or form we can.”

The center is currently funded through user fees, which in this case are first responders. The funds for those fees and other fire department operations are collected through property tax levies.

Currently, between Washington’s minimum sales tax, 6.5%, and the county’s, 1.3%, unincorporated county residents currently pay a 7.8% sales tax, according to the Department of Revenue for Washington state. Some cities also collect a percentage. Sales tax rates in Centralia and Chehalis are currently 8.2%, according to previous reporting by The Chronicle.

If passed, Lewis County would collect an additional .2% sales tax to fund its 911 call center, a rate of two cents for every $10. According to Elizabeth Cameron, vice president of Citizens for Lewis County 911 PAC, groceries, gas and medicine would be exempted for the tax.

“The tax would be contributed to by visitors traveling through and or attending events in Lewis County,” Cameron said.

The ask comes as the system struggles to meet demand, according to county officials.

According to previous reporting by The Chronicle, decades of underfunding mean overworked staff and infrastructure.

“We are very short-handed,” Former Lewis County Manager Erik Martin said in July 2022. “There are times that we have less-than-optimal (staff levels). What typically happens is they’re working overtime. They’re really working hard and being troopers about it but … it’s a really tough job.”

In a guest commentary published by The Chronicle Monday evening, Lewis County Commissioner Sean Swope said the 911 call center received 47,812 calls last year, with 15,112 directed to the Centralia Police Department. In the commentary, Swope said he’s heard from multiple constituents who reported their calls to 911 were routed to voicemail.

“Imagine facing a life-threatening emergency, such as a house fire, overdose, car wreck or robbery, and finding that your call for help is not answered,” Swope wrote. “This shocking situation is the result of staffing shortages and high call volumes, which are overwhelming our public safety system.” 

During the November election, the proposition failed by about 3%, with roughly 600 more voters opposing the proposal than supporting it. The initiative had support from the City of Centralia, the Fire Chiefs Association, and the 911 Communications Combined User Committee for Lewis County, among others.

As the tax increase failed, county commissioners attended the quarterly meeting of the Lewis County Fire Commissioners Association in November to reflect on why the attempt failed and prepare for another go.

At the meeting, Commissioner Scott Brummer said, “We need to do a better job of educating the public and getting the word out” while Commissioner Lindsey Pollock said she was “looking forward to us putting forward a more concerted effort” to increase support.

George Kaech, a fire commissioner for Lewis County Fire District 8 in Salkum, said previous discussions centered around getting factual information out, though the message didn’t necessarily land.

“People did not realize that two-tenths of a percent is two dollars a thousand,” Kaech said at the meeting. “It never got put out, the numbers.”

As an audience member began to ask about the timeline for a second attempt, Swope said it would come in November 2024.

While the attempt in Lewis County failed, Thurston County narrowly supported a similar proposal in 2023. Last November, voters passed a proposition to impose a two-tenths of 1% sales and use tax increase to primarily fund law enforcement.