Mayoral candidates Jim Berrios and Dana Ralph didn’t hesitate to address how to shake Kent’s negative reputation because of crime.
During a mayoral debate Thursday night in front of about 150 people at the Kent Senior Center, Berrios said he wants to increase the number of Kent Police officers to 180 from 153 over the next five to six years and find more options for things to do for youth.
“We need to increase police so we have more resources,” Berrios said at the debate presented by the website ilovekent.net in advance of the Nov. 7 general election ballot. “Our city is big with the level of challenges it has to deal with (in reference to numerous recent shootings).”
Berrios, owner of the Golden Steer Steak ‘n’ Rib House on the East Hill, said he has hired young people at his restaurant who started out clearing tables and worked up to management positions.
”We need to work with our youth more than we do now,” he said. “Our youth are looking for things to do and hang out or more importantly, jobs. When you give a young man or woman a job, what a difference it makes in their lives.”
Ralph countered with that depite some high-profile crime issues in the city, Kent has a lower crime rate than most of its surrounding cities.
“What we are not doing is talking about that,” said Ralph, in her sixth year on the City Council. “I want to as your mayor be the champion for our city. It’s about telling our story and talking to people about why Kent is such a fantastic place.
“We have amazing things here, Blue Origin, the biggest rocket company in the world, is based in our valley. We sell ourselves short and don’t talk about this stuff enough and it allows an opening for people to form opinions that aren’t true.”
Berrios, in his fourth year on the council and a former Kent School Board member, responded to Ralph’s comment to the question from an audience member about changing the perception of Kent.
“Perception is reality,” Berrios said. “I want to make sure everybody’s clear is that we have a concern right now with what is happening with shots fired. Just last week we had a shooting in broad daylight in the Kent Chamber parking lot. The week before another shooting in the parking lot of Amazon. That is a reality. We can’t ignore that. So how do you market that perception until you need to address the problem and fix it.”
Ralph agreed with Berrios earlier in the night in a response to a question about public safety that Kent needs more police officers. But she questioned how the city could fund nearly 30 more officers.
“I’d love to be able to say there’s a way in the next few years to grow it that much but we’re looking at $125,000 to $150,000 per officer,” she said. “Part of that is being realistic about how we can grow the police department but it’s also about providing them with technology and tools to be more effective with their job.”
Ralph also made reference to the council’s budget vote in December.
“In last year’s budget, while I did not vote for the final budget, I was the council member that proposed a way to find an additional two police officers in addition to the ones presented by the mayor and that’s because public safety is my top priority,” Ralph said.
Ralph, owner of a medical billing service in Kent, opposed the budget because it included the use of $2 million in reserve funds for park repairs, an amendment proposed by Berrios.
“I’ll start out by saying I did vote for the budget that gave three additional police officers this year and three the following year and that’s because our city needs to strengthen what we are doing when it comes to policing,” Berrios said.
Despite Berrios’ proposal for adding a couple of dozen more officers, the Kent Police Officers Association backs Ralph.
“I am the only candidate in this race that’s been endorsed by the police department and that’s because they know I support them and want them to have the tools and ability to serve our community,” said Ralph, who recently announced plans that as mayor she would have officers wear body cameras starting next year to help improve safety for residents and police.
Parks funding debate
Ralph and Berrios differ about how to fund parks. Ralph proposed last year to use $2 million from the city’s business and occupation tax to pay for park repairs that city staff reports at a $60 million maintenance backlog. Berrios supports all B&O revenue for street repairs.
“In our last budget we put a Band-Aid on our parks system and didn’t come up with any sort of actual solution,” Ralph said. “We used one-time money for an ongoing problem and that is never an answer.”
Ralph said businesses benefit from parks and should help pay them.
“I believe parks are an economic driver for our businesses,” Ralph said. “People want to locate in places where their employees want to live. Parks provide recreational opportunities for employees on their lunch hours and before and after work.”
Berrios responded to what Ralph called a Band-Aid approach, his budget amendment to spend $2 million of reserve funds on park repairs.
“I am proud to say that I was the council member that worked with the other council members in coming up with a solution to get us through the next couple of years to address a $2 million shortfall,” he said. “I found money in the budget to take care of parks for the next two years.”
Berrios added that more funds are needed and there are other options besides the B&O tax revenue.
“We have to take a look at all of the options from property taxes, levy lifts, bonds and a metropolitan parks district,” he said.
Berrios won the mayoral primary race in August with 39 percent of the vote. Ralph had 33 percent. Elizabeth Albertson and Andrew Swansen received a total of 28 percent of the vote, leaving one-fourth of the voters possibly switching to Berrios or Ralph.
Suzette Cooke is in her 12th year as mayor and decided against seeking another four-year term. Cooke, who attended the debate, defeated Berrios in 2009.
Kent’s mayor is a full-time position and pays an annual salary of $144,996. Council members are part-time jobs and receive $14,808 per year. Berrios and Ralph each said at the debate they have plans in place at their businesses for others to do their work in order to devote their time to being mayor.