The Washington State Supreme Court ruled against an organization that has been fighting to stop a new youth detention facility in the central district for the past six years.
The justices found that Ending the Prison Industrial Complex (EPIC) had waited too long to dispute the language on the 2012 ballot measure meant to fund the $210 million project through a nine-year increase in property taxes called a “lid lift.” According to state law, the public has only 10 days after ballot language is accepted by county officials to challenge the language.
“We therefore hold that EPIC’s claim, which it brought nearly 4 years after the ballot title at issue in this case was filed, is untimely,” the justices wrote.
This overturned the Court of Appeals decision that found that the county had improperly increased property taxes to pay for the facility because imprecise ballot language allowed for a lid lift only in the first of the nine-year span.
Anthony Wright, director of Facilities Management, applauded the decision.
“Our position is, and has always been, that King County voters fully understood the levy lid lift question on the August 2012 ballot, that they were aware the levy would last for nine years, and that the additional revenue would be used to build a full replacement of the Youth Services Center,” Wright said in a statement.
The decision is a lifesaver for King County. According to emails acquired through a records request, county officials said that Howard S. Wright, the group building the facility, had a contract for the entire project. That meant the county could be on the hook for the cost of the facility, no matter what.
“[Facilities Management] is analyzing options but it may actually be more expensive to stop the project than to complete it,” wrote Dwight Dively, the county’s budget director, in September 2017. The “worst case scenario” involved financing $197 million.
Using bonds at a 4 percent interest rate over 30 years, the annual debt service would be roughly $11.4 million per year paid from the general fund, Dively wrote. That money would come from somewhere, meaning that other programs or services would have to be cut.
The financial cost of building the facility is only the beginning, said Devon Knowles, a member of the No New Youth Jail coalition and attorney who wrote an amicus brief supporting EPIC’s lawsuit. Taxpayers will still be on the hook for the operation costs of the facility, and more to the point, the detention of young people.
“Today’s decision was disappointing,” Knowles said. “It was not the way we hoped it would come down. At the same time, it is certainly not going to stop us from opposing and struggling against this jail or any jail that exists or is proposed in Seattle or King County.”
The struggle has continued even as each side waited for the Supreme Court to make its ruling. Knowing that the money would be spent either way, King County continued construction on the facility in the interim, and protesters continued to try to shine light on the issue.
In March, protesters blocked traffic to raise awareness. A month later, nine leaders of faith communities were arrested protesting the facility. Some had chained themselves to steel beams in an attempt to stall construction.
Arguments for the new facility center on the condition of the old one. The county holds that the youth detention facility and courts are old, cramped and not conducive to helping the young people who come through its doors. The detention building will be designed to hold roughly half of the people that the current jail can house.
Opponents say that it could never meet the needs of the predominately Black and Brown youth who are held there throughout the year, and that the money would be better spent by investing it in the community rather than jailing its children.
Ashley Archibald is a Staff Reporter covering local government, policy and equity. Have a story idea? She can be can reached at ashleya (at) realchangenews (dot) org. Follow Ashley on Twitter @AshleyA_RC
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