Olympia voters will decide in November whether to raise property taxes to give the Olympia Police Department an extra $2.8 million per year.
The funds would come from a property tax levy increase of $0.45 per $1,000 in assessed value. The money raised would bring the department’s walking patrol up to pre-recession staffing levels, fund neighborhood liaison officers, pay for the Community Court program, and fund crisis services.
In short, the money would fund the community policing programs that Olympia residents have been asking for, said Councilman Jim Cooper at a Friday morning information session for the Olympia Downtown Association.
“This is the opportunity for us to take community policing up to full scale,” Cooper said.
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If enacted, the measure would push Olympia’s property tax rate up to $2.71 per $1,000 of assessed value. The increase wouldn’t expire.
The tax increase would cost owners of $250,000 homes about $112 more per year.
The public safety levy is the result of years of work by Police Chief Ronnie Roberts, Mayor Cheryl Selby said. The crisis service portion is loosely based on the CAHOOTS (Crisis Assistance Helping Out On The Streets) model, operated in the Eugene, Oregon, police department where Roberts worked from 1986 to 2007.
Under the CAHOOTS model, a crisis response team consisting of a medic and a crisis worker can be dispatched by police and fire dispatchers — the equivalent of Thurston 911 Communications.
“Ronnie (Roberts) wants the full CAHOOTS model used in Eugene,” Selby said. “This isn’t quite there.”
However, the proposal would include mobile mental health outreach for people in crisis. The program would help people who are causing disturbances, but aren’t acting criminally, Roberts said.
“We have some people out there who aren’t doing criminal things, but they’re scaring people,” Roberts said.
He said police officers have become the first responders to mental health crises — but they’re not social workers or mental health providers. He hopes the department will be able to connect people with services that will provide long-term solutions.
“We respond because no one else is coming to the door,” Roberts said.
“I think if we do nothing, many lives are going to be lost in our city.”
The specifics of the crisis services haven’t been worked out yet, but the city would likely contract with a service provider for mental health outreach, Selby said.
One of the most talked about aspects of the tax proposal, however, is the addition of four officers and a sergeant to the Olympia Police Department’s downtown walking patrol program.
The patrol now has two officers.
The walking patrol program began in 1985 with seven positions, said Mayor Pro-Tempore Nathaniel Jones. The city cut the program in 2010, during the recession.
In 2012, voters passed a sales tax increase to fund public safety. The Olympia Police Department brought back two walking patrol positions.
But because of staffing constraints caused largely by retirements, the walking patrol has mainly been active during summer months. With additional money, city officials hope to make the walking patrol a year-round operation.
Without the public safety levy, Olympia’s Community Court program — which provides alternatives to incarceration — would likely be cut. The program began last year with the help of a federal grant, which will expire next summer, Jones said.
The increased revenue also would create a neighborhood officer team, which would assist with code enforcement and problem solving in the city’s neighborhoods.
What Olympians think
In a poll earlier this year, the idea of a public safety levy was met with approval from Olympia residents.
Pollster Stuart Elway asked people how they felt about two possible tax increases: one to benefit public safety, and one to benefit housing programs.
When asked how they would vote if both levies were on the ballot, 51 percent of respondents said they would vote “yes” on both measures, 16 percent said they would support only a public safety levy, and 14 percent said they would support only a housing levy. Eight percent of respondents said they would support neither measure, and the remainder were undecided.
But when asked about each measure individually, support was overwhelming. Seventy-eight percent of respondents said that they would definitely or probably support the policing measure if it were put on the ballot, with 14 percent of respondents saying they would probably or definitely oppose the measure.
The council opted to put the public safety property tax levy on the November ballot, and is expected to place the housing levy on the February 2018 ballot.
Selby touts the public safety levy as a way to address one of the issues that most concerns Olympia residents: homelessness. In the Elway poll, 51 percent of respondents said that homelessness is the most significant issue facing the city.
The mayor said that she’s confident in Olympia voters’ support of the measure — people understand that if they want community improvements, they’re going to need to pay for them.
Todd Cutts, executive director of the Olympia Downtown Association, said that his organization is behind the proposal. Local business owners recognize that there are a lot of people in need.
“I think this could make a lot of difference downtown,” Cutts said.
Max Brown, an Olympia City Council candidate, said he supports the tax proposal, but he’s concerned that the city’s current elected officials are leaving such important services up to the whims of voters.
“When I talk to people in our community, they say they want these things,” Brown said. “It hurts my heart that we’re leaving these essential services up to chance.”
He believes that the city should work to make its government more efficient, making room in the budget for the proposed public safety programs.
Glen Morgan, a Tenino resident who wrote the argument against the public safety measure for the county’s voter pamphlet, essentially argues the same thing.
He doesn’t take issue with the proposed programs, but he believes there’s room for those programs within the city’s existing budget.
“If they managed the budget a little better, they wouldn’t even need this tax increase,” Morgan said.
He criticized the city’s use of the 2012 public safety sales tax increase, and said that Olympia residents weren’t given what they were promised: a permanent downtown walking patrol.
Morgan said that with a tax increase, Olympia residents will be contributing more money without a guarantee that the money will be used properly.
Cutts expressed a similar concern at Friday’s Olympia Downtown Association meeting, and asked Jones what assurances could be made that the money would be used for the promised programs.
Jones said they would use the funds as promised.
“Olympia residents will hold us accountable,” he said.
About the November election
- The general election takes place Nov. 7
- Ballots will be mailed Oct. 18
- Oct. 30 is the registration deadline for new voters
- Current voters who wish to update their registration information must do so by Oct. 8