Thurston County public safety tax passing Tuesday in early results


The so-called "Public Safety Tax" in Thurston County appeared to be passing Tuesday night in early election results.

In Tuesday night's tallies, about 22,312 (57.9%) voted to approve Proposition No. 1 and 16,250 (42.1%) voted against it, according to the Thurston County Auditor's Office. Auditor Mary Hall said it requires a simple majority to pass.

If voters approve the proposition, the county will impose a two-tenths of 1% sales and use tax that would primarily fund law enforcement. The Board of County Commissioners approved placing the matter on the November ballot in July with the hope that it would provided funding the Sheriff's and Auditor's offices are seeking.

The passage of the tax would primarily be a boon to the Sheriff's Office, which has struggled to fill its allotted patrol deputy positions. In response to the initial results, Sheriff Derek Sanders posted on Facebook that he felt "emotional" about the outcome.

"People are tired of being victimized with minimal resources to help them," Sanders said. "Public safety is making a comeback in our state and is on the verge of turning a major corner in our county."

In the post, Sanders likened the results to a vote of trust in the Sheriff's Office, it's employees and himself.

"Thank you to everyone who placed their trust in us to get us squarely onto a path of success," Sanders said.

In July, Sanders said the Sheriff's Office was "significantly underfunded." Then in September, he declared a staffing emergency, citing persistent vacancies and limited funding.

"The value that this Public Safety Tax could bring to the department is unprecedented," Sanders said in July. "It has the ability to completely reshape and reimagine what the Thurston County Sheriff's Office looks like."

The county budgeted over $26.3 million in expenditures and 124.49 full-time equivalent positions for the Sheriff's Office law enforcement division in 2023. Money from the new tax could add millions to that budget and lead to more hiring, The Olympian previously reported.

County documents indicate 60% of the money received would be retained by the county and 40% would be distributed to local cities on a per-capita basis.

The county intends to use 75% of the money it retains for law enforcement services and infrastructure. The remaining 25% would fund more prosecution and public defense services as well as elections security infrastructure.

That last portion could fund planned renovations and security upgrades at the Mottman Complex, located at the intersection of Ferguson Street Southwest and 29th Avenue.

The complex now houses the county's ballot processing center. The county intends to open a new voter services center at the complex before the presidential election in 2024, but budgetary concerns and other delays could still derail that plan.

Following the board's July vote, Assistant County Manager Rob Gelder framed the Proposition 1 tax as one of necessity for the county.

"Ensuring the protection and safety of the residents of Thurston County is an essential priority," Gelder said. "The county Sheriff's Office is in need of more law enforcement officers to patrol the county and keep our community safe."

In October, the county sent mailers with information about the proposition to 129,275 households at the cost of $41,642 in postage and printing costs.

In response, an Olympia man filed a complaint against the county with Public Disclosure Commission, alleging the mailer promoted the passage of the new tax rather than just informing voters.

Tuesday night's count from the county Auditor's Office indicated voter turnout so far was at about 20.9% of 196,717 registered voters. However, there were still many votes left to be counted. Ballots needed only to be dropped off or postmarked as of Nov. 7.

Thurston County will post updated results daily until the county certifies the results on Nov. 28. The Washington Secretary of State will then certify the results by Dec. 7.