Kent City Council eyes option to raise sales tax to pay for more police

Top priority for 2024 legislative session: Get ability to boost sales tax without voter approval

Kent city leaders want the option to raise the sales tax in town to hire more police officers without going to voters for approval.

If the city of Kent’s lobbyist and leaders persuade enough legislators this upcoming session in Olympia, the City Council will have the option in 2024 to raise the sales tax to hire more officers.

If a bill is approved by the Legislature, whose 60-day session starts Jan. 8, the council could decide to hike the sales tax by 0.3% or 30 cents for every $100. That would bump Kent’s tax rate to 10.4% from 10.1%.

City leaders want the option so badly that it’s the only top priority on the council’s legislative agenda for 2024. The council typically approves three to five priority items.

“So far, there’s a lot of support from folks around being able to come up with a funding source to hire additional police officers for our community,” Mayor Dana Ralph said during her Dec. 12 report to the council when she thanked it for support of the proposal. “It’s the number one thing I hear about from the community and I am positive what you hear about. We are really hopeful the Legislature is going to listen and be responsive to our request.”

Ralph said city leaders have met with legislators in the 11th, 33rd and 47th districts, who represent parts of Kent, and “we have had extremely positive support.”

Currently, cities can raise the sales tax by 0.1% for a public safety measure that must be approved by voters. Voters in several cities have approved such a tax, including Olympia, North Bend, Mill Creek, Monroe, Marysville, Leavenworth and others, according to the Seattle-based nonprofit Municipal Research and Services Center that provides legal and policy guidance to local governments.

Counties can raise the sale tax by up to 0.3% to fund public safety, if approved by voters. Thurston County voters approved an increase of 0.2% on the November 2023 ballot.

The city of Kent, like most cities, already imposes a 1.0% sales tax, the maximum allowed under state law, to be used for the general fund. Kent also has a 0.1% housing tax to help pay for affordable housing.

Briahna Murray, of Tacoma-based Gordon Thomas Honeywell Government Affairs, the city’s contract lobbyist in Olympia, met with Ralph, city Chief Administrative Officer Pat Fitzpatrick and department directors to identify issues and priorities for the upcoming session.

Murray shared with the council in October the proposed legislative agenda’s written statement and why money for hiring more police officers became the top priority.

“Public safety is the Kent community’s most significant concern,” according to the document. “In response, the city has worked diligently to utilize existing resources to create a safer community while simultaneously ensuring police accountability and transparency.

“However, the city has reached the limit on what it can accomplish with existing resources,” according to the document.

In 2024, the police department will receive $58.4 million out of the city’s $121.8 million general fund. That’s enough to fund 166 officers, but Police Chief Rafael Padilla has repeatedly said the department needs about 195 officers to properly staff a city of more than 132,000.

Kent Police also receive about $4 million per year from the city’s red-light camera fund that helps pay for the body-worn cameras used by officers. The department gets about $1 million per year from school speed zone cameras.

“The City Council is willing and committed to approving a local tax to generate the resources necessary to improve public safety, however, state law does not provide the council with that authority,” according to the city’s legislative agenda.

“The city of Kent urges the Legislature to approve councilmatic taxing authority (without voter approval) to fund public safety now in 2024 so that the council can effectively lead the community and help residents feel safe at home, work, parks, restaurants and throughout their daily lives.”

Council reaction

A few council members had questions for Murray when she proposed the public safety item as the only top priority.

“It makes sense to focus on this as a top priority, but it’s not very likely to pass in the next few years, unless there are changes in elections,” Councilmember Satwinder Kaur said. “I think we’d be all open to talk to individuals it might have an impact on, but I don’t have a lot of hope on this.”

Murray quickly responded to Kaur.

“Let me give you a little hope,” Murray said. “I think it’s possible, especially with the Association of Washington cities making it a priority. If it was just Kent, we’d be sunk because we need broader support. ...We will not be alone in asking for this.”

The Association of Washington Cities is an Olympia-based private nonprofit that represents cities and towns before the Legislature, the state executive branch and with regulatory agencies. The group says on its website that council’s need “additional funding tools and resources for officer recruitment and retention to improve public safety.”

Murray said it’s also important to emphasize with legislators that they are not taking a tax vote.

“This is them authorizing you all to take a tax vote, you are the ones to have conversations with communities,” Murray said.

Kaur said that made her “a little bit more positive.”

Thomas opposes agenda

Councilmember Les Thomas, a 20-year member of the council whose term has ended, let Murray and the rest of the council know at the October meeting that he opposed the public safety sales tax proposal as a top priority for the legislative agenda.

“I will vote no over the consistency of my last 20 years as I’m kind of anti-tax,” Thomas said.

Council members Toni Troutner and Kaur each responded to Thomas.

“This will give us a tool,” Troutner said.”It doesn’t mean we have to do it, it’s an opportunity to consider it.”

Kaur had a similar response.

“We are approving our legislative agenda,” Kaur said. “It doesn’t mean it’s going to pass in the sesssion or we will vote to increase taxes, but to have a tool because we need the funding, to have it in our pocket.”

Thomas wasn’t persuaded.

“I know what you are saying, but we are voting for a tax increase or the ability to increase taxes so next year’s council will have that opportunity,” Thomas said. “But what you are telling me with this motion, we approve this agenda with the highest priority for a tax increase.”

Troutner responded that the council is only allowing the city lobbyist to take it to the Legislature. Murray added it simply gives the council the option to raise the sales tax.

“You are saying, the council in its wisdom is saying we want you to push this particularly agenda and that’s where I have a problem,” Thomas said. “I don’t want to approve a tax increase or the ability to approve a tax increase.”

Councilmember Brenda Fincher chimed in on the side of Troutner and Kaur.

“Right now we don’t have the choice,” Fincher said about raising the sales tax for public safety. “We can say no or say yes (on approving a sales tax hike). The local control puts some of that here to look after our folks.”

The council voted 5-1 to approve the legislative agenda. Troutner, Kaur, Fincher, Marli Larimer and Zandria Michaud voted in favor. Thomas was opposed. Council President Bill Boyce was not at the meeting.

Despite the 5-1 vote at the committee level, the council at its regular meeting Nov. 21 unanimously approved the legislative agenda as part of the consent calendar, where many items are approved at once without discussion if considered noncontroversial.

City of Kent sales tax

• 6.5% State

• 1.4% Sound Transit

• 1.0% City

• 0.9% Metro Transit

• 0.1% Housing (city)

• 0.1% Criminal justice (county, city gets a portion)

• 0.1% Mental health (county)

Total: 10.1% ($10.10 per $100)

Note: King County Council adopted a 0.1% arts levy that starts in April 2024 (no voter approval needed under state law)

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