Kent voters delivered a resounding rejection to higher utility taxes for more police officers and higher property taxes to help maintain fire services.
Voters were rejecting each ballot measure by a 58 to 41 percent margin, according to King County Elections results released Tuesday night.
“I am committed to making this work,” Kent Mayor Dana Ralph said to Proposition A police measure supporters who gathered on election night downtown at Airways Brewing – The Bistro. “We will make this happen. We are going to go back out (to voters) – that’s my promise – it’s the only way we can fix the problem we have.
“There were a few things that were working against us in this election. We have some issues going on in our school district and the McCleary decision on property taxes – that all played against us. I don’t know what we could have done differently.”
Ralph said she will talk to Council President Bill Boyce to take a proposal back to council to put another police measure on the ballot, possibly in August.
“It’s that important and it’s the right thing,” Ralph said. “We just need to convince our residents it’s the right thing.”
The utility tax hike to 8 percent from 6 percent would have paid for 23 more police officers and nine support staff positions. The tax increase on electric, natural gas, cable and phone bills would have brought in an estimated $4.8 million per year. With the utility tax jump, a typical family of four household would have paid 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.
Cities can raise utility taxes to 6 percent without voter approval under state law. Any rate higher than that must be approved by voters.
“It is important for people to know that even though it didn’t pass, we are committed as a police department and city to do everything within our power to provide the best service possible to the residents of Kent and those that work here,” Police Chief Ken Thomas said at the gathering. “We will continue to work hard and when we go back out we will go just as hard or harder next time, and we will make this a success because we really have to for the city.”
Kent Police would have increased its force over the next three years to 180 members from 157, including 149 patrol officers compared to 128. The new hires would have allowed 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 would have helped reduce overtime costs that hit nearly $2 million last year.
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.”
A total of 6,597 voters rejected the tax hike, 4,640 were in favor.
Puget Sound Regional Fire Authority (RFA) asked voters in Kent and Covington to approve Proposition No. 1 for a higher property tax rate in return for a lower fire benefit charge.
If approved, the measure would have raised the fire property tax levy to $1 per $1,000 of assessed value from the current rate of 77 cents per $1,000 assessed value. The owner of a $319,000 house would pay about $319 per year under the higher tax rate, an increase of about $74. But that owner (based on a 2,263 square-foot house) would see a $74 reduction in the fire benefit charge from about $273 to $199. The total bill would be about $518, based on 2018 property values.
Puget Sound Fire cannot raise the tax rate more than 1 percent without voter approval. The new property tax rate increase of 23 cents per $1,000 assessed value would have brought in about $5.1 million per year.
“Obviously, we were disappointed with the results,” Puget Sound fire spokesman Kyle Ohashi said in a phone interview Wednesday. “We are going to reevaluate and decide our next course of action.”
The higher tax rate would have started next year, so fire services will remain the same for the rest of this year, Ohashi said. Fire officials will discuss when to go back to voters to increase the tax rate.
“We have to get the levy up at some point,” Ohashi said. “When we do that is part of our evaluation.”
A total of 8,391 voters rejected the tax increase, 6,015 approved it.
The Puget Sound Fire Governing Board and fire officials want to rebalance how much of the $58 million operating and capital budget is funded by property taxes and how much by the fire benefit charge, a variable rate fee based on the square footage and the amount of resources needed to provide emergency services to each house or business. With the fire benefit charge, the owner of a large house or business pays a higher fee than the owner of a small home or business.
State law says that a fire benefit charge can be no more than 60 percent of an operating budget. Puget Sound Fire’s fire benefit charge covers 54.5 percent of the budget.
Voters in 2010 approved the formation of the RFA with 72 percent in favor of funding the agency through a property tax levy and a new fire benefit charge. Previously, Kent funded its fire department through the city’s general fund. Covington and Fire District 37 contracted with Kent for services. The property tax levy started at $1 per $1,000 assessed value, but has dropped to 77 cents per $1,000 because of the state property tax limit of a 1 percent increase each year that has dropped the rate over the years as property values greatly increased.