Politics & Government

Police force staffing tied to University Place vote on utility taxes

University Place voters will decide next month whether to pay more taxes to keep the city’s police force from cutting staff.

If voters approve the increase Nov. 4, utility taxes in the city will go from the current rate of 6 percent to 9.5 percent. That will allow the department to maintain staffing levels and eventually grow by three deputies and one patrol sergeant, officials say.

If voters reject the proposal, the city says it will be forced to reduce police staffing by four employees in 2017.

The city has seen a stable response to crime — the number of patrol calls for service through August 2014 was similar for the same period in 2013. The city saw its violent crime rate remain the same over the same period and the property crime rate is down by 12 percent, according to a recent report from Police Chief Mike Blair.

The city’s public safety commission worries that the statistics could change if deputies are lost, said UP public safety manager Jennifer Hales.

The tax increase would be applied to private utilities such as garbage, natural gas, telephone services and cable television. A statement supporting the tax increase in the Pierce County Voters Guide erroneously states the tax would not apply to Click cable TV customers.

A household that pays $400 a month on utilities would pay an additional $14 a month, according to city estimates.

Hales said the city’s current staffing doesn’t allow police the flexibility to be proactive about concerns such as drugs and speeding. On a normal shift, only two deputies are available to respond to calls in the city of 32,000 people, she said.

At its peak in 2001 the police department had 25 employees, including 15 patrol deputies, two sergeants and a traffic officer.

The department now has 18 employees. That includes the chief, one sergeant, 12 deputies, one community support officer, one school resource officer, one investigator and an administrative assistant.

“We are simply bringing back a small percentage of what we had,” Hales said.

The Pierce County Sheriff’s Department provides police service to University Place by contract. The city is paying $3.4 million this year.

The city’s proposed biennial budget lists the contract amount at $3.5 million for 2015.

The city’s $37 million preliminary 2015 budget is stable for 2015, but a midyear adjustment will be needed if the utility tax increase fails, City Attorney Steve Victor said.

Police staffing levels would be affected by 2016 and incrementally decreased into 2017, according to Blair.

University Place’s public safety commission recommended the utility tax increase earlier this year. The commission studied the city’s finances and determined the rising cost of inflation on employee health care and other fixed expenses is higher than the city’s property tax collection. Property tax revenues currently pay 100 percent of city police services.

Employee medical and insurance rates are projected to increase by 7 percent in 2015 and another 10 percent in 2016, according to the city’s preliminary budget. Property taxes can go up only 1 percent a year.

University Place resident Betsy Tainer opposes the utility tax increase, but her fundamental beef is with the city’s reliance on property taxes to pay for police. Tainer is a member of UP Voters Committee, a volunteer group that formed to examine how to pay for services such as schools, fire and police.

“It’s unreasonable and irresponsible of them to tie the police budget to property tax revenues when they have other resources,” she said.

If the city used other funds to pay for police, it wouldn’t have to ask voters for the utility tax increase, she said. She suggested that stepped-up traffic patrols would provide additional revenue.

Victor, the city attorney, noted that most cities use property tax collections to pay for general-fund services such as law enforcement. The City Council opted to dedicate all property tax revenues to police because it was committed to making public safety a top priority, he said.