Difficult Decision: Carnation Proposition 1 raises taxes to preserve police coverage

Carnation voters are deciding between saving money or saving police services in the Nov. 8 election.

The issue is a 61-cent increase in property tax rates pitted against a one-third cut in police staff. If passed, Proposition 1, would raise the city's property tax rate to $1.90 per $1,000 of assessed value (to about $570 per year for a $300,000 home, from $387) bringing in about $90,000 to the city for police and public safety. If Proposition 1 fails, the city of Carnation must reduce its police services contract with the city of Duvall by that amount "which would mean an officer," said Carnation-Duvall Police Commander Carey Hert.

Carnation currently contracts with Duvall for 3 police officers, who patrol the city on a varying schedule, Hert said, plus shared administrative costs. Because of the structure of the police shifts and time off, losing one officer from the mix would realistically mean keeping one officer on patrol 12 hours a day, while another is off duty.

In other words, Carnation would a police officer on-duty half the time, explained City Manager Ken Carter.

This will be the city's third attempt in the last four years to increase taxes for police and public safety. In the current budget, public safety is the largest single budget item, accounting for $596,000 of the city's 1.1 million budget, or 52 percent. Carter noted that public safety included many courts costs, not just the police contract, which is estimated at $512,000 next year.

Besides police services, public safety costs include reserving jail beds, prosecutor's time, and public defenders for citizens who can't afford attorneys. All of these costs have been increasing, Carter said.

"For example, three years ago our district court cost was zero," Carter said. Revenue from fines balanced the costs of prosecution then, but each year since, the costs have increased by about $6,000. "It all adds up...Court costs are the most noticeable."

Carter calls the police service his city receives from the Carnation-Duvall department "a double-edged sword," for that reason. The costs for courts and jails increase as the police make more arrests, but the city benefits from reduced crime.

"We were having between one and three DUIs a year under the sheriff's service," he said, of the city's contract with the King County Sheriff's Department before contracting with Duvall in 2004. "Now we have about 16, and that takes more court time to prosecute… It's getting drunk drivers off the street, but boy, it's spendy."

According to the citizens' supporting statement in the Voters' Guide, the last time Carnation had only two police on staff, prior to the Duvall contract, the crime rate was three times higher than it is today. In 2004, the city signed an interlocal agreement with Duvall for shared police services, but each city pays for its own officers, cars and equipment. Since then, Carnation has averaged one of the lowest crime rates of any city in the state, along with Duvall.

However, in 2008, Carnation began struggling to keep up with the increasing costs of public safety. After much debate, public meetings, and several citizen surveys on budget priorities, the city council voted to put a levy lid lift on the ballot in 2008 and again in 2009. Both narrowly failed. The 2008 vote was 367 to 402, 35 votes short, and in 2009, the margin was even smaller, 223 to 246.

Each year, the city made progressively deeper cuts, as revenues decreased, and the recession crushed hopes of a housing boom once the city's sewer system went online in 2008. Parks maintenance was reduced each year and lights weren't turned on, then last year the city opted not to place a portapotty in Memorial Park because the $400 cost was too high. The Public Works Director was laid off and his position eliminated in February, 2010, hours were reduced at City Hall, holiday lights weren't replaced, discretionary funding was reduced to two line items, and every other staff position at City Hall was reduced, either in hours or in pay, by January, 2011.

"We have cut everything but law enforcement," Carter said. "We've cut parks, we've cut staff, we've reduced hours, we've done everything so we could avoid having to cut police. We've cut to the point that there's nothing left."

The Carnation City Council did not attempt a levy lid lift measure last year, but had been discussing it in work sessions for much of this year before deciding to proceed.

Now city is awaiting the outcome of the Proposition 1 vote, as is the Carnation-Duvall Police Department, which has a current opening in its 15-member department, but won't need to fill it if voters reject the proposition.

Only a simple majority of voters is needed to approve the measure. Carnation currently has 976 registered voters.


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