University Place hopes to stave off more police cuts

Tacoma News TribuneMarch 11, 2014 

In two years, the city of University Place won’t have enough money to pay for its current police force or park maintenance, according to a pair of city commissions.

A metropolitan park district is the best way to maintain parks, according to the city’s parks and recreation commission. The City Council asked the commission to come back in August with more information.

To pay for police, voters will be asked in November to increase their utility taxes 3.5 percent. If approved, the increase would generate enough revenue to fill a growing deficit over the next 10 years and add four employees, according to a recommendation by the city’s public safety commission.

The City Council voted 6-1 Monday night to send the proposal to the ballot.

“The fact is, if we can’t find the funds, we’re going to have to cut police and cut other areas,” Councilman Steve Worthington said.

The former Fife city manager said in his 25 years of working in municipal government he’s seen budgets with room for cuts to avoid tax increases. That’s not the case here, he said.

“I wish there was a different way to do this, but I don’t know what it is,” Worthington said.

The rising cost of inflation on health care and other fixed expenses is higher than the city’s property tax collection, which can go up only 1 percent each year by law, City Manager Steve Sugg said.

UP dedicates 100 percent of the city’s share of property tax revenues to police, but only gets 8 cents out of every $1 paid, Sugg said.

“The money coming in can’t keep up with the cost to provide services,” he said.

If approved by voters this fall, the city’s utility tax would increase to 9.5 percent. A household that pays $400 a month on garbage, gas, telephone, cell phone, cable television and surface water services would pay an additional $14 in tax.

The extra revenue would cover current police operations and pay for three more deputies and one patrol sergeant. Even with the added staff, the department would have fewer employees than it did in 2009, the last year before the council had to slash departments to balance the 2010 budget.

The Pierce County Sheriff’s Department provides police service to University Place by contract. In 2009, UP paid the county $4.9 million. It dropped to $3.9 million in 2010. It’s paying $4.5 million this year.

The police department declined from 23 to 15 employees in 2010 when a patrol sergeant, two detectives and five officers were eliminated. In 2013 the council added an investigator and this year added a community support officer.

If voters reject the tax increase, the city estimates by 2017 it will have to cut two patrol deputies, the department’s only investigator and the community support officer. That would leave the department with 14 employees.

Councilman Chris Nye was the only member to oppose the tax increase request Monday.

The police department motto of “no call is too small” is not good policy, Nye said. Police Chief Mike Blair has implemented this practice requiring officers to respond to all calls unless already attending to a more important incident.

That level of service is what separates the city of 32,000 people from similar sized communities, Blair said.

In 2012 University Place ranked last out of 18 cities in Pierce County for the amount of money spent on police service per resident, according to information provided by the city’s public safety commission.

The average cost per resident for police service in the county is $291; the cost in University Place is $109 per person. Puyallup, which has a similar population to University Place, pays an average of $373 per person.

Brynn Grimley: 253-597-8467

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