Kent voters to decide on utility tax hike to hire more police officers

Proposal to be on April 24 ballot

Kent voters will decide in April whether to raise city utility taxes to 8 percent from 6 percent to pay for 21 additional police officers and 10 other support staff positions.

The City Council’s Public Safety Committee voted 3-0 on Tuesday to recommend that the full seven-member council on Feb. 6 approve putting a police and criminal justice measure on the April 24 ballot. The tax increase on electric, natural gas, cable and phone bills would bring in an estimated $4.8 million per year.

If approved, the Kent Police force would increase over the next three years to 180 members from 157, including 149 patrol officers compared to 128. The tax hike would add support staff of two sergeants, two corrections officers, two records specialists, one prosecuting attorney, one paralegal, one judicial specialist and one probation officer.

“Public safety is number one to the city,” Council President Bill Boyce said. “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.

“This is something I strongly support, and it’s up to the people. That’s what we are doing here is we are asking the people this is the need we have in the city, and public safety is important for a large city like Kent, and we will be asking them to make the decision whether they see public safety as a number one issue as well.”

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.

Police Chief Ken Thomas said at a committee meeting in early 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 $1.8 million last year.

“We want more people on the street to take care of our citizens,” Thomas said on Tuesday. “This is all about keeping our community safe and providing the best possible services.”

With the tax jumps, a typical family of four household would pay an estimated $136 more per year in utility taxes based on a current monthly average of $570 in utility bills, according to city Finance staff.

Cities can raise utility taxes to 6 percent without voter approval under state law. The cable tax isn’t capped by the state, but city Chief Administrative Officer Derek Matheson said staff decided to roll all of the taxes together on the ballot measure.

“It will be really intriguing to me to watch the numbers come in to see if their priorities are the same,” Councilman Les Thomas said about the April vote.

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.

“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. “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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