Kent's only 2024 legislative proposal aims to raise sales tax to hire more police officers

Leaders of the City of Kent will be asking state lawmakers to give them authority to increase a local sales tax to hire more police officers.

In the city’s only proposal for the 2024 legislative session, the bill would allow city council the option to impose a .3% sales tax to fund public safety. This equates to three cents for every $10.

"This is pennies, and it will have a significant impact," said Kent mayor Dana Ralph. "On $10, that three cents gives us the ability to hire upwards of 30 to 35 police officers. So, it really is a small amount to provide our community with some pretty significant resources."

Though every vacant officer position has been filled within the city budget allotment, Ralph explained Kent still has fewer officers per capita than most cities in Washington. The rate is 1.2 officers per 1,000 residents. Kent’s population is 137,900.

Rafael Padilla, chief of the Kent Police Department, said the reality is Kent doesn’t generate revenue like neighboring cities to offer the department more money within the city budget.

"The issue is that over time, we’ve had to really squeeze every penny out of our budget. Kent is not a wealthy city," said Padilla. "We’re incredibly diverse and that means we’re incredibly diverse in economic status. So, we’ve had to learn to do more with less and we embrace that, and we’ll continue to do that. But we didn’t get here because we wanted to be."

The police chief said he attributes the "unprecedented rise" in violent crimes in the city to the staff shortage.

"It pains me to come out and say we are still seeing record-level highs. In all kinds of categories, not just homicides, but in assaults, in robberies. We’re seeing a very concerning trend in the level of violent crime committed by youth," said Padilla. "Right now, we are in such a reactive state due to our staffing. All we can do is keep up with the 911 calls. That’s not effective policing."

City leaders said if the proposal is approved by state lawmakers, the City Council would then have to vote to adopt the sales tax increase. If passed, Ralph said the city would be able to hire 30 to 35 officers, beginning in 2025. This would help the police department reach the state staffing average, which is 1.36 officers per one thousand residents.

"We’re not asking for the moon and stars. If you look at what we’re asking, we’re asking to be average. Can we please be average? I think our community deserves a lot more than average, but right now we’re so excited to get an opportunity of average staffing levels in the state," said Padilla.

The police chief also explained the department has already developed a plan for the department, should the city gain authority to increase sales tax.

"30 plus new officers and support people will represent an opportunity to get back to the exceptional level of crime reduction, crime prevention, community engagement that our community demands and that I want to deliver as chief," said Padilla. "We have numbers that we want to get to be able to reduce call response times, to be able to spend more time de-escalating people."

State Representative Chris Stearns, representing the 47th Legislative District, is sponsoring the bill in the House. State Senator Karen Keiser, representing the 33rd Legislative District, is sponsoring the bill in the Senate.

The city made the sales tax increase proposal its one and only legislative priority. The 2024 Session starts January 8. The mayor, police chief and community members will be testifying at the Capitol Building in about two weeks. 

"It is very rare for a city to have one legislative ask. Usually, there are things in all sorts of different areas that we do things," said Ralph. "We are so focused on this. This is the only thing that we are asking the legislature for this session. That’s how important this is. It’s really a make or break to keep our community safe."