Financial Challenges Facing Washington Counties

How Public Safety, Behavioral Health, and Social Service Needs Are Overwhelming County Governments

Equal Access to Justice

New responsibilities and requirements placed on Counties over the past decade have created major challenges to balancing County budgets.

In particular, mandates around public defense, public safety, and social service systems have caused the cost of providing these services to grow faster than the revenue sources that Counties have available to fund them.

Counties are committed to providing these services to our communities, but without significant new revenue sources Counties will be increasingly unable to meet the constitutional and legislative mandates described below.

Washington Counties pay over 95% of costs required to meet constitutional mandates around equal access to Justice

The right to counsel is embodied in the Sixth Amendment to the United States Constitution. In 1963, the United States Supreme Court, in Gideon v. Wainwright1, ruled that the Constitution requires the states to provide defense attorneys to criminal defendants who cannot afford lawyers themselves.

In Washington State, public defense services are administered, and largely funded, by county and city governments. Since 1989, RCW 10.101.030 has required each jurisdiction to adopt local standards that ensure indigent defendants’ constitutional right to effective representation.

A lack of State funding for this constitutional mandate puts Washington far behind most states in the country, 44 out of 50 states contribute more toward public defense costs than Washington.

Nationwide, 23 states fund 100% of their public defense costs and another 8 fund over 50%

County expenditures related to public defense have nearly doubled over the past decade. WSAC has created the Trial Court Public Defense Dashboard to Illustrate this growth in counties.

“Given the existing low level of state funding and the increased costs identified to date, the State should increase the funding levels to cities and counties for public defense.”


Public Safety

Public Safety is a core responsibility of Counties in Washington State. Counties are responsible for:

  • Public safety within the unincorporated area;
  • Superior, district, and juvenile courts, including facilities, personnel salaries and benefits, and a portion of judges’ salaries;
  • Providing cities with regional criminal justice services that are too expensive for each small city to duplicate;
  • Prosecution, public defense, and ancillary services such as interpreters and investigators;
  • Jails and juvenile detention facilities;
  • Inmate health services, such as  behavioral health, substance use dependency (including opioid addiction), medication assisted treatment (MAT), and smoking cessation services;
  • Probation, diversion, and community services;
  • E-911 and emergency management; and
  • Medical examiner or coroner services.

These expenses, including judicial, legal, and inmate services which the State Auditor’s office does not categorize as “public safety”, account for over 70% of County General Fund spending.

Counties have dedicated special revenue sources for these costs including:

However, these revenue sources don’t come anywhere close to meeting the need.

These expenditure levels DO NOT reflect the actual need for these services. Many countries struggle with inadequate or outdated facilities and understaffed law enforcement and corrections personnel. This is most apparent in the state of County Jail facilities across the state

Whatcom County’s Overdue Jail Facility Update

Location: Bellingham, WA
Whatcom County’s current Jail facility was constructed in 1984 and has not received the necessary renovations and updates to keep pace with population growth. The County asked the voters for special taxing authority to fund a new Jail in 2015 and 2017 but ballot measures were rejected both times. After years of community engagement and a public video tour of the outdated facility, voters approved the construction of a new health, safety, and justice facility in 2023.

Spokane County’s Failed Proposal

Location: Spokane, Washington
Facing a similar situation as Whatcom County, Spokane County also made a proposal to their voters in 2023 to modernize their Jail facility and reduce crowding. However, voters in rejected this measure leaving the County scrambling to find other ways to fund the 305 million dollar project.

Adams County’s Unfortunate Closure

Location: Ritzville, WA
Adams County, a much smaller municipality than Whatcom or Spokane, has had an even tougher time modernizing their jail and keeping paces with the rising cost of services. Lack of staffing and adequate facilities caused the jail to close in May of 2022 following an incident between a corrections officer and an inmate. Since then, they have been forced to operate without a jail, leaning on neighboring counties to house inmates.

Counties believe the purpose of the criminal justice system is to minimize the cumulative personal, social, and economic impacts of crime on society. For that reason, counties take their criminal justice responsibilities very seriously. Over many years, as state funding has declined, counties have instituted numerous efficiencies and, where authorized by statute, developed innovative law and justice programs. However, despite efforts to be more efficient and accessible, counties lack the necessary funding for mandatory criminal justice services.

Social Services

Over the past 10 years, no expenditure category has grown more than Social Services. Since 2013 Counties have more than doubled their annual spending in this category.

Most of these services are funded through intergovernmental revenues and special use taxes, but such a dramatic increase in service levels comes with a dramatic increase in the cost of administering these programs and ensuring good governance and oversight.

The current method of funding services like public safety, housing, and behavioral health is unsustainable. The lack of state investment in these systems combined with restrictions on County revenue authority, like the 1% levy limit on property taxes, have left Counties unable to keep up with the growth in need for these services in their communities.

We see the fallout of these overburdened systems on our streets…
in emergency rooms…
…and in our schools.
When Counties are unable to meet the demand for these services, all community members and institutions are impacted.