University Place tax measure failure forces tough decisions about police, budget priorities

University Place leaders are trying to figure out how to pay for full police service beyond 2016 after the failure of a tax measure on the Nov. 4 ballot.

UP voters were asked to increase utility taxes from 6 percent to 9.5 percent to help make up a looming shortfall in the city’s property tax collections, which pay for its contract with the Pierce County Sheriff’s Department. Voters rejected the measure with a 54 percent no vote.

The City Council was able to preserve police service in the $37 million biennial budget it approved last week. But that might be the last time the city sees a budget that doesn’t call for staff layoffs or cuts to city programs.

“If we do not make drastic changes and cuts to our budget, there will be cuts to officers,” Councilwoman Caroline Belleci said in an interview Thursday.

That message was conveyed to voters before the election, she said. The tax increase failure means the council will have to decide where that money should come from.

“Now the conversation is going to have to be for the citizens to prioritize,” Belleci said. “My first priority is that we have public safety. The tough decision is going to be, where do we take the money from? Or what programs do we reduce or eliminate to pay for that?”

The council has indicated it wants to hold a special meeting in January to focus on the projected budget shortfall in 2017. The meeting will include a discussion about city priorities.

Officials said approval of the utility tax increase would have allowed UP’s police force to grow by three deputies and one patrol sergeant.

They said a rejection of the measure would require the city to reduce police staffing by four employees in 2017, from its current level of 18 employees.

“My concern has always been, do we have enough officers on the street for the calls that require more than one officer?” said Michael Smith, co-chairman of the city’s public safety commission. “That may not possible in light of the budget, and that’s dangerous.”

Despite the failure of the utility tax increase, the city’s 2015-16 biennial budget is balanced. That means the council won’t need to take immediate action to pay for police. But leaders could start looking ahead to making changes as early as mid-2015.

The council approved the budget Nov. 17 by a 6-to-1 vote, with Councilman Chris Nye dissenting.

Nye said he couldn’t support the budget because he doesn’t agree with how some money is being spent. That includes the use of one-time revenues to pay for marketing the city during the U.S. Open golf championship next June.

He also doesn’t agree with the city spending more than $300,000 to pay for recreational programs such as youth baseball, soccer and basketball.

“Everybody loves those programs — my kids have benefited from them — they’re awesome,” Nye said. “But should city be taking money from taxpayers to ‘recreate’ people?”

Nye was also the lone vote on council against placing the utility tax increase on the ballot. At the time, he questioned the police department’s motto of “no call is too small,” saying it is not good policy.