Kent Mayor Dana Ralph, left, and City Councilmember Satwinder Kaur testify Jan. 16 in Olympia in support of a House bill to allow counties and cities to increase sales taxes to hire more police officers. Screenshot via TVW

Kent Mayor Dana Ralph, left, and City Councilmember Satwinder Kaur testify Jan. 16 in Olympia in support of a House bill to allow counties and cities to increase sales taxes to hire more police officers. Screenshot via TVW

Kent mayor, police chief push for sales tax bill in Olympia

3 cents hike per $10 in Kent could bring in an estimated $10 million per year to hire more officers.

Mayor Dana Ralph and Police Chief Rafael Padilla are convinced if the city had the money to hire as many as 30 more officers, they could help clean up crime in Kent.

That’s why they are leading a mission to persuade legislators over the next several weeks in Olympia to allow the Kent City Council to enact a sales tax hike of 0.3% (3 cents on every $10 purchase) to raise an estimated $9 million to $10 million per year in Kent for public safety.

Crime continues to climb in Kent.

The number of homicides jumped to 19 in 2023 from nine in 2022, according to Kent Police statistics. There were 15 homicides in 2021, and nine in 2020, after just four in 2019 and six in 2018, making for a large increase over the last four years.

Aggravated assaults have been on a steady rise in the city since 2019, topping out at 176 in 2023. That’s up from 167 in 2022, 120 in 2021, 104 in 2020 and 74 in 2019.

“When I look at my inbox, what residents and businesses are talking about, hands down it’s public safety,” Ralph said during a Jan. 10 interview at City Hall. “I get more complaints and wondering what are we doing about public safety than any other topic.”

Ralph said the message boils down to one thing.

“We are asking the Legislature to provide the city a tool to respond to our residents,” she said.

If adopted this session, House Bill 2211 and Senate Bill 6076 would give county and city councils across the state the ability to raise the sales tax by 3 cents per $10 purchase to pay for more officers and other public safety needs without going to voters.

State Rep. Chris Stearns, D-Auburn, whose 47th Legislative District includes parts of Kent, agreed to sponsor the House bill.

“House Bill 2211 empowers local governments, like Kent’s, to make timely, community-specific decisions,” Stearns said in a Jan. 12 email. “The unanimous support from Kent’s mayor and City Council underscores its necessity.”

The city council made the measure its only top priority on the 2024 legislative agenda.

“The alarming rise in crime, including a significant increase in homicides and aggravated assaults in Kent, highlights the urgency for action,” Stearns said. “Furthermore, this bill encompasses funding for the entire criminal justice continuum and enhances the overall public safety infrastructure. The proposed tax increase is modest but impactful - an additional 3 cents on a $10 purchase.

“Community safety is not only a top concern among our constituents - it’s a top priority of mine, and this bill is a step towards safer and more secure communities across Washington.”

The city of Kent wants to hire as many as 30 more police officers to be paid for by a sales tax increase of .03% or 3 cents for every $10 purchase. COURTESY PHOTO, Kent Police

The city of Kent wants to hire as many as 30 more police officers to be paid for by a sales tax increase of .03% or 3 cents for every $10 purchase. COURTESY PHOTO, Kent Police

Testimony in Olympia

Ralph, City Councilmembers Satwinder Kaur, Zandria Michaud and Council President Bill Boyce testified Tuesday, Jan. 16 in front of the House Committee on Local Government. Boyce and Michaud appeared via Zoom.

Darryl Jones, a Kent resident who ran unsuccessfully for City Council in November 2023, spoke in Olympia in opposition to what he called the “voter suppression bill” during his initial testimony.

“It takes away the ability of residents in Kent to vote on whether or not the city can increase its tax rate,” Jones said.

Jones said Mayor Ralph is trying to go around the citizens of Kent who have voted against tax increases.

“We have spoken, we have said no, leave it to the people,” Jones said. “I would vote for the sales tax, my opposition is they are trying to suppress my vote and take away my option to make that decision.”

Voters rejected in April 2018 by 57% to 43% a hike in city utility taxes to 8% from 6% to pay for more police. That would have brought in about $4.5 million a year to hire 23 more officers.

Then-Mayor Suzette Cooke proposed that measure and the council, which included Ralph, agreed to send it to voters. Ralph had just started her first term as mayor in 2018 and pushed hard for voter approval of the measure.

Ralph considered a recommendation to the council to send the measure to voters again, but decided against it. In 2019, she considered a property tax levy lid lift measure for voters to hire more officers, but changed her mind.

Voters reelected Ralph to a second four-year term in 2021 when she continued her stance to add more police officers, which Padilla also has pushed for.

Now entering her third year of her second term, Ralph has seen more and more residents ask for more officers as well as each member on this year’s council. That’s why she strongly supports the bill to increase sales taxes.

“We are seeing an increase in crime,” Ralph said. “On social media it’s what people are talking about. They’re experiencing it every day. The expectation is local government should be able to address what they need. ...This (bill is) designed to give us a tool for what residents expect us to do.”

Kent-based Puget Sound Fire Chief Brian Carson testified in Olympia in favor of the bill and how it would help the new co-responder program started about a year ago. The Kent Police Department partners with the fire department to supply a nurse and social worker on certain 911 calls.

Kent small business owners Gwen Allen-Carston and Randall Smith also testified in favor of the bill.

“Let the people we elected do their job, don’t hold them back,” said Smith, who wants faster response times from officers. “They want to make sure we are safe. I want to make sure we are safe.”

Rafael Padilla

Rafael Padilla

Padilla seeks more officers

Padilla, during an interview at City Hall, talked about changes in officer duties.

“I miss the days where you would not have to wait around a long time before a police officer drove through your neighborhood to make sure everything is OK,” Padilla said. “(I miss) the days to stop by businesses to check on their needs. That capacity needs to come back and this would help that.”

The Kent Police Department has 166 officers. Padilla said another 30 would be a “game changer” for the city of more than 134,000.

“It takes care of my need in call response and steps up the ability for the intervention and prevention side of things,” Padilla said. “We could have a traffic (patrol) presence. We have the staff to go to collisions but not traffic safety education and prevention.”

The staffing increase also would move Kent to the middle of number of officers per 1,000 residents in the state rather than sitting near the bottom. Kent has 1.20 officers per 1,000 residents, just ahead of Kirkland at 1.17 and Redmond at 1.02, according to Kent Police stats. Everett has the highest number of officers at 1.81 per 1,000 residents followed by Lynnwood at 1.72, Seattle at 1.64, Tacoma at 1.53 and Spokane at 1.51.

As a state, Washington ranks last in the nation at 1.36 officers per 1,000 residents, Ralph and Padilla said. The national average of officers per 1,000 residents is 2.31.

“Cities across Washington, including Kent, are significantly understaffed in policing compared to the national average,” Stearns said. “More officers are crucial for responsible, de-escalation-focused policing. Current police resources are strained, leading to more reactive policing, which limits community-based proactive initiatives.”

Keiser supports proposal

State Sen. Karen Keiser, D-Des Moines, sponsored the Senate bill, which must go before the Ways and Means Committee.

“Public safety is an issue I take very seriously,” Keiser said in a Jan. 11 email. “Homicides and other violent crimes have increased in Kent and other South King County communities, while police staffing has fallen. Police work and public safety programs mostly take place at the local level, and our state can be a good partner by giving local jurisdictions permissive authority to take action to address their public safety funding shortfalls.”

Keiser expects the bill would help.

“I have been listening closely to constituents, law enforcement and city governments in our district, and I’ve been hearing that the state needs to help provide the tools and resources so that local governments can recruit and retain enough police officers,” Keiser said.

If approved by the Legislature, the King County Council would have the first option to enact a sales tax for public safety. If the county council passed the sales tax hike, monies would be distributed to cities based on populations.

“I generally support local control of these decisions and know we need to be doing more to address public safety,” said King County Council Chair Dave Upthegrove, of Des Moines, whose District 5 includes part of Kent. “If it passes, I’m sure the King County Council at that point will discuss with the cities whether, who, and when to consider the funding tool.”

Under the current bill proposal, if a county has not imposed the tax at the full rate of 0.3% by July 1, 2024, a city within the county may impose the remainder of the tax up to the full rate of 0.3%, according to the bill summary by House of Representatives staff. Just as when the tax is adopted following a vote, the total combined rate of the tax may not exceed 0.3% when it is legislatively adopted.

If passed by the Legislature, the bill contains an emergency clause and takes effect immediately.

Ralph said the revenue to Kent would be similar whether the county council or city council hikes the sales tax. Either way, the limit to the hike would be 0.3% and all monies must be used for public safety.

“Three pennies on a $10 purchases for additional officers, community court expansion and co-responder expansion, I’m hot hearing anything from people saying ‘no, we don’t need that,’” Ralph said.

If enacted, the 0.3% hike would raise the sales tax in Kent to 10.4% on the dollar. The state sales tax is 6.5%. Other sales taxes include 1.4% to Sound Transit, 1.0% to the city, 0.9% to Metro Transit, 0.1% to housing (city tax), 0.1% to criminal justice (county tax, city gets a portion) and 0.1% to mental health (county tax).

The King County Council adopted a 0.1% arts levy last year that starts in April 2024.

Rafael Padilla

Rafael Padilla

Why not go to voters?

As far as not going to voters for approval of a sales tax hike, Ralph said the city needs money now and any measure to voters would take more time. Under current law, the city could only ask voters for an 0.1% increase, which she said wouldn’t bring in the revenue needed for more officers with about $3 million per year compared to $9 million.

“We’re doing this as the most direct path to funding an immediate and urgent need,” Ralph said.

Kent’s most diverse neighborhoods with affordable housing are experiencing the highest levels of criminal activity, according to Kent Police statistics.

“We should be helping those who need the most help, they are the victims of crime,” Ralph said. “This is about taking care of our most vulnerable. When you go out into these neighborhoods this what they are talking about. It’s where if your car gets stolen, you can’t get to work and you can’t afford to replace it.”

Ralph and Padilla are hopeful about getting the bill passed by the end of the 60-day session, which began Jan. 8.

“We’ve got to get it out of committee, that’s our first big hurdle,” Ralph said. “I want to be optimistic about this. We heard before session positive things form legislators, so I hope they stick to that.”

Ralph said Stearns and Keizer stepping up to be bill sponsors helped a lot. She said Stearns has been working on the bill for a couple of months.

“I’m very grateful for that,” Ralph said.

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