City of Kent seeks utility tax hike to hire more police officers

Measure on April 24 special election ballot

The city of Kent is requesting voters to approve a higher utility tax to pay for 23 more police officers and nine support staff positions.

King County Elections mailed ballots this week for the April 24 special election that includes Proposition A to hike the utility tax to 8 percent from 6 percent. The tax increase on electric, natural gas, cable and phone bills would bring in an estimated $4.8 million per year. The ballot also includes Proposition No. 1, a Puget Sound Regional Fire Authority measure to increase property taxes to maintain services in return for lower fire benefit fees.

With the utility tax jump, a typical family of four household would pay about $136 more per year in utility taxes based on a current monthly average of $570 in utility bills, according to city Finance Department staff. All funds from the measure would be dedicated to police and support staff and not go into the general fund, Mayor Dana Ralph said.

If voters approve the utility tax jump, the city would hire 21 patrol officers, two sergeants, two city jail corrections officers, two police records specialists, one prosecuting attorney, one paralegal, one public defender, one judicial specialist and one probation officer.

Kent Police would increase its force over the next three years to 180 members from 157, including 149 patrol officers compared to 128.

Cities can raise utility taxes to 6 percent without voter approval under state law. Any rate higher than that must be approved by voters.

“Public safety is number one to the city,” Council President Bill Boyce said when the council in February approved sending the measure to voters. “We have been struggling for quite sometime to try to get our (number of) police officers up to provide safety to our city. Our officers are working the streets hard with countless hours of overtime – and I think I can say slightly overworked – and I think by adding extra resources to help balance the workload it will allow us to provide better service to our customers and the ability to make our city even more safe.”

Police Chief Ken Thomas said at a council Public Safety Committee meeting in January the new hires would allow the bicycle unit to be fully staffed at eight officers rather than five or six and the traffic unit at 10 officers rather than seven. The extra officers also would reduce overtime costs that hit nearly $2 million last year.

More officers also means more vehicles. The measure would help pay for as many as nine Chevy Tahoe SUVs over the next three years at a cost of about $62,000 each, according to city documents.

Kent residents Eric Bernard, Karen Bernard and Edward Worcester wrote an opposition statement to the measure in the Voters’ Pamphlet.

“Kent’s Police Department can be funded through the city’s regular budget, not through unrelated taxes on utilities you rely upon daily,” the statement said. “Kent’s mayor and council need to fully fund our Police Department – with tax revenue the city already collects.”

Bernard, who also wrote an opposition statement against the Puget Sound Fire property tax measure hike, said the city should use the $2 million it spends on overtime for police officers to hire more officers rather than seeking additional revenue.

“Make better fiscal decisions with current tax revenue collected,” the statement said.

Then-Mayor Suzette Cooke first proposed the ballot measure during a council budget workshop last fall in an effort to hire more police officers. The council agreed to follow through with the plan.

“We’re putting this out there for the public to look at and the public to make that decision,” said Councilwoman Toni Troutner, chair of the Public Safety Committee, after the group decided to refer the tax hike to voters. “We all support public safety and what our officers are doing but when it comes to it, it’s up to the voters to decide what’s important to them.”

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