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Should utility taxes be increased to hire more officers? Kent voters to decide in April

 Kent is considering raising utility taxes to pay for more police officers. (Photo: KOMO News)

KENT, Wash. -- Should utility taxes be increased to hire more police officers?

On Tuesday night, the Kent City Council is expected to decide whether to put a ballot measure before voters in late April. If passed, the ballot measure would raise utility tax rates to 8 percent from 6 percent to pay for more police officers and other public safety personnel.

The 2 percent increase would equal out to a little more than $11 per month for the average household, city leaders told KOMO News.

"My initial reaction is like 'Don't tax me anymore.'" said Kent voter Deborah Young.

She gets it.

If you need more police officers on the streets, you need more money to hire them.

But six months ago, she moved to Kent from Des Moines to cut costs while she goes to school full-time, she said.

"Sometimes I do feel like I’m getting taxed to death. And so it’s hard because… I feel like I pay enough taxes," Young said.

In April, the city is expected to ask voters like her to approve a ballot measure that would increase utility taxes on electricity, natural gas, cable, and phone bills by 2 percent.

The money would be used to add 21 patrol officers to the city’s police force, two sergeants, two corrections officers, two police records specialists, one prosecuting attorney, one prosecution paralegal, one judicial specialist, and one probation officer. Some money would also be used to buy several new police vehicles.

City leaders told KOMO News the area was hit hard by the recession about 10 years ago. The city has added a couple of officers to the police force each year, but it hasn't been enough to keep up with the area's population growth, leaders said. The growth has largely been fueled by the Panther Lake annexation and more people recently moving to South King County because of increasing rent and home prices in Seattle, they added.

"Right now, our staff are tired and they’re stressed. And really this will be a big shot in the arm to help with moral with the feeling that work environment will improve," said Kent Police Chief Ken Thomas.

Thomas said his department has the lowest ratio of officers per thousand compared to other police departments in the region.

Last year, the city paid about $2 million in overtime costs, Thomas said. Most of the overtime was to cover service calls, he added.

Crime is down overall, said Kent City Council President Bill Boyce. But homicide, theft, and property crime cases have all gone up in recent years.

"There will be more officers to handle the workload or the call load and we can better address the issues," Thomas said.

Thomas said his top priority will be to fully staff his department’s bicycle unit to focus on homelessness and people in crisis, including those impacted by opioid addiction. The unit hasn't been fully staffed for several years, he said. Thomas said his force is also short on detectives. To combat increases in violent crime, he's transitioned the special investigations unit to strictly work on violent crime cases and gang cases.

"It’s going to be a tough sell," said Boyce. "I think some of the things we’ve done is because we’ve had to. But this here to me is really, really important. It’s public safety. I think the safety of our city is very important."

Boyce told KOMO News he knows some voters are recently feeling tax fatigue.

But he believes the proposed utility tax increase is worth it to keep the community safe.

"At the end of the day, people are going to say ‘OK, my safety. Is that important to me?’ And I’m hoping people will look at it from that perspective," Boyce said.

If the ballot measure passes, the money would exclusively be used to fund public safety, officials said,

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