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Kent mayor seeks property tax hike to hire more police

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City of Kent voters can expect to be asked in November to support a property tax hike to hire 30 more police officers.

“I need all of you to help me carry this message that there is no place in Kent for crime,” Mayor Dana Ralph said at her State of the City Address on March 5 inside the Blue Origin aerospace company headquarters in the Valley.

Ralph, in her third year of a four-year term, said she will ask the City Council to place a measure on the Nov. 3 General Election ballot. Voters rejected a measure in April 2018 by 57 to 43 percent that would have raised utility taxes to 8% from 6% to bring in about $4.5 million annually to hire 23 officers. The city levies a fee on electric, natural gas, cable and phone bills.

Since that defeat, Ralph and Police Chief Rafael Padilla have lobbied for more officers. Ralph and the council considered going back to voters later in 2018 and in November 2019 before backing off the proposals.

“We are still finalizing all of the numbers,” Ralph said after her speech about the tax hike and potential city revenue. “It will be enough to staff them up by 30 officers and the support staff to go along with it. Once we get that finalized we will make that a part of the announcement.”

The mayor considered a property tax levy lid lift last year, which would have allowed the city to exceed the 1% limit on annual property tax collections for a period of up to six years.

The council approved hiring five more officers in 2020 out of the general fund as it has tried to boost staffing in each of the last several years by at least three per year. That increase will boost staffing to 165 officers, but Padilla and city leaders have said Kent’s population of nearly 129,000 needs more than 190 officers. With vacant positions, staffing is currently at 153 officers, Assistant Chief Jarod Kasner said in an email.

Ralph said the city surveyed residents by phone and found out 75% said they would feel safer if Kent added more officers.

“The last couple of years, we have done a really good job showing that we are an accountable government and a lean government,” Ralph told the audience at Blue Origin. “I would not stand in front of you and be asking for something if I did not truly believe it was in the best interest of the city. This is not an ask for money so we can spend it. It is asking for your help so we can make this an even safer community. It is really, really important.”

Ralph said picking the November ballot is part of the strategy.

“We know there’s going to be considerable voter turnout being a presidential election year and we want to make sure we have lots of folks coming out to vote,” she said during the interview after her presentation.

The mayor said she also wants to add more police substations to help residents feel safer. Currently there are three substations, one each on the West Hill, East Hill and in Panther Lake. The main police station is in the Valley.

Blue Origin site

With the State of the City Address inside Blue Origin, residents had a chance to check out a portion of the new headquarters that opened in January for the Kent-based company owned by Amazon founder Jeff Bezos. Blue Origin’s goals are to get astronauts back on the Moon and people living and working in space.

“There are 281 cities and towns in Washington state and I’m going to brag a little bit, I’m pretty sure out of those 281 cities no one else has this cool of a backdrop,” Ralph said as she stood in front of the Blue Moon, a robotic space cargo carrier and lander for making cargo deliveries to the Moon. “I want to thank Blue Origin so much for making this happen.”

Ralph said she wanted to give her speech at the company so residents could have a chance to see inside the building and the space lander.

The company will have 4,000 employees by the end of the year, Ralph said. They are hiring about 25 people per week.

“These employees are not all rocket scientists,” she said. “They are administrative professionals, accountants, custodians, security professionals, engineers, machinists and everything in between. All of them are paid a living wage, have benefits and many of them come from Kent. That is something we need to be super proud of.”

Vacant buildings to be filled

Ralph covered a lot during her 53-minute speech, including potential businesses coming to a couple of vacant buildings in town, although she did not name the companies.

A tenant has been found for the former G.I. Joes store, 25928 104th Ave. SE, that has been closed for years.

“It has been leased,” Ralph said. “We don’t know yet who it is, but it has been leased.”

The mayor said there is ”a very interested buyer’ in the former Kmart store, 24800 W. Valley Hwy., that closed in 2018.

“I do know who that is but I can’t tell you,” she said. “I can promise you it is an organization that will provide really great services to our community. As soon as they tell me that I can tell you, you will all be the first to know.”

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