Drivers who speed through school zones with cameras in Kent will pay for the police department’s plan to spend $868,000 on 14 new vehicles this year as well as 2019 and 2020 to initiate a car-per-officer, take-home program.
The City Council’s Operations Committee on May 1 voted 2-0 to recommend that the full council on May 15 approve use of the city’s school zone traffic safety camera funds to pay for the additional vehicles. Police officials said the plan is to buy 14 vehicles ($62,000 per vehicle) in each of the next three years at a total cost of about $2.6 million.
The decision by city and police leaders to start the new car-per-officer program came just one week after voters soundly rejected (57 to 43 percent) a utility tax increase to 8 percent from 6 percent to hire 23 more officers in an effort to try to make Kent safer as well as reduce overtime costs of about $2 million per year. Kent has a force of 157 officers, so about half will be able to take vehicles home. The department currently has 41 vehicles, so most officers share cars.
“We’re doing a program that will save taxpayers money in the long run,” said Ken Thomas in a phone interview last week prior to Mayor Dana Ralph replacing him Tuesday as police chief with Assistant Chief Rafael Padilla. “The capital is from a special purpose fund, which will put less pressure on the general fund.
“It’s not taxpayers funds, it’s from traffic violators. That’s a good message for taxpayers, it’s not taxpayer money paying for it.”
Drivers caught speeding at the four schools with cameras brought in $1.2 million last year to the city in ticket revenue. Kent’s taken in $4.2 million during the four years of the program, which started at Sunrise and Neely-O’Brien elementary schools in 2014 and expanded to Meridian and Millennium grade schools in 2015.
Police started the program in January 2014 at the request of Kent School District officials in an effort to get drivers to obey the 20 mph speed limit at schools where traffic studies showed the most violations. The ordinance requires all funds remaining – after paying $461,000 to the Arizona company that runs the program – must be spent for enforcement and processing of traffic and criminal laws in the city.
The police department’s use of the funds in past years included city jail renovations, police overtime costs, a use of force training simulator, traffic safety equipment, seven new vehicles, drones, surveillance cameras, a 3D crime scene scanner and security upgrades at the main police station and three substations.
The car-per-officer program will save costs in the long run or be net neutral (after about three years) because of lower maintenance and operation costs with just one officer using the vehicle, Thomas said. City and police staff looked at similar programs used by the Tacoma and Lakewood police departments to help determine if the proposal saves money.
It’s also a recruiting tool for police departments as the city covers all vehicle costs for officers, no matter how far their commute. Kent officers live an average of about 17 miles from police headquarters, with many of them in the Puyallup and Bonney Lake areas, Thomas said.
About 15 officers (detectives, command staff, SWAT and K-9 units) take home police vehicles now, Thomas said. Officers will not be able to use vehicles for personal trips.
“It’s so competitive in the job market,” Thomas said. “Renton is in the process of going to it, Federal Way is going to it and every Pierce County agency has the program. I think Bellevue is going to it, too. We had to get in the game. Retention and recruitment is a big part of it.”
Because officers will be able to keep all of their equipment in the vehicle, locker rooms will no longer be needed at the crowded police headquarters next to City Hall. And with officers not needing to commute in their personal cars, it will open up parking space around the station.
“I know the chief spent time crunching numbers and spent time with Finance (Department) to be net neutral or save some money,” Council President Bill Boyce said before he voted for the proposal. “Finance gave thumbs up, I feel good about that.”
Boyce also liked that the program benefits officers.
“We talk about trying to retain officers and everybody around us is doing this,” Boyce said. “This will be a small perk benefit to officers and give us more space. It’s a good thing and a step in the right direction.”
Kent plans to purchase Ford Interceptor vehicles with the funds. The force is replacing its Chevy Tahoe vehicles because the Ford vehicles cost less to outfit with police equipment and get better fuel economy, Thomas said.
If approved by council, Kent expects to order the new vehicles in June, receive them in October and outfit them, which means the program should begin by the end of the year.