Kent City Council might ask voters to raise utility tax to hire more police

Force would jump to 180 officers from 149

It appears the Kent City Council plans to ask voters in April to approve a 2 percent utility tax jump to pay for hiring as many as 31 police officers.

The council’s Public Safety Committee discussed the proposal on Tuesday that would hike the utility tax to 8 percent from 6 percent on electric, natural gas, cable and phone bills. The measure – expected to be on the April 24 ballot – would bring in an estimated $4.8 million per year to hire officers and support staff (records, jail, court, prosecutors) because of the additional officers.

State law prohibits a city from raising its utility tax above 6 percent without a vote by residents.

Police Chief Ken Thomas told the committee the new revenue would allow him to increase the force to as many as 180 officers from 149.

“This is an opportunity for us to get to the position where we need to be as an organization,” Thomas said. “We need 200 officers to be brutally honest with you. But I don’t think you would pay attention to me if I said give me 200 officers. We need to work to get there. … It just gets us to the middle of the road. The issues of quality of life in our community and doing the best we can to keep this community safe – that’s why we need to make this jump.”

Thomas said 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.

“It gives us more bicycle officers to interact with the community and deal with some of our pressing issues downtown, and it gives us an adequate traffic unit and allows our patrol division to be fully staffed so we are not mandating officers on a daily basis to work overtime.”

Overtime costs have gone way up for the police force. More staff would cut down on the overtime costs, Thomas said.

“In this past year, we paid approximately $1.8 million in overtime just to cover the street,” he said. “That money had to come from somewhere and it came from positions that were unfilled – salaries and benefits – that helped pay to manage that.”

The chief also emphasized that Kent ranks last among surrounding cities as far as the number of officers per 1,000 residents, with 1.1 per 1,000. Kent has a population of more than 127,000.

“If you compare the city of Kent to Bellevue, Everett, Seattle, Tacoma, Renton, Auburn – we are at the bottom,” Thomas said. “If we hired 25 officers tomorrow, it would put us in the middle.”

Most cities average 1.45 officers per 1,000 residents, Thomas said.

Councilman Les Thomas, no relation to the police chief, questioned that the city is asking residents to pay yet another higher tax. The council last month approved a property tax hike to help cover a general fund budget gap and bring in more money to help offset a future loss of state revenue. That measure will cost the owner of a $300,000 home about $105 more this year in property taxes.

“I’m struggling here a bit,” he said. “Our citizens are going to get hit left and right with different taxes. Here’s another incident that’s going to make the headlines in the Kent Reporter that the council raises taxes on utilities.”

The councilman also raised doubts about the shortfall of officers to hire and whether Kent can even find 30 more officers.

“I agree that the candidate pool is shallow and not just for Kent but the entire state and the country,” the chief said. “There are people out there to get that want to work for the Kent Police Department and we can get there.”

The committee is expected to vote Jan. 30 on a ballot measure proposal that would go to the full seven-member council for approval on Feb. 6. The King County Elections deadline to submit measures for the April 24 ballot is Feb. 23.

Former Mayor Suzette Cooke recommended last fall during her budget presentation that the council and new mayor ask voters this year to approve an utility tax hike to pay for more officers.

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