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Woodland asks voters to help fund more police officers

LONGVIEW — Woodland is again asking voters to pay for more officers and equipment to handle increasing workloads.

To police and city officials, Proposition 1 is a matter of officer and public safety, but critics say the city is asking too much.

The measure would permanently increase the property tax rate by nearly 63 cents per $1,000 of assessed value, bringing the total levy rate to $2.47 per $1,000 in 2020. For a $286,000 home, the lid lift would raise annual property taxes by about $194.

The measure needs a simple majority to pass.

The city expects the proposition would raise $576,000 in 2020 and $667,985 by 2026. It would pay for two police officers, one sergeant and their associated police equipment and training.

The department hasn’t created a new position since 2007, and calls for service have more than doubled since then. Woodland Police Sgt. James Keller said he and other officers sometimes have to handle what should be two-officer calls, such as a domestic assault or a burglary alarm, alone.

“Our city’s growing, but the police department is not,” Keller said. “We chose a dangerous profession. But I don’t think that we should be putting ourselves in extra danger just because of the lack of staffing.”

Woodland Clerk-Treasurer Mari Ripp and Woodland Mayor Will Finn said that by law, the money would be earmarked for the police department.

“That money goes to the police department and won’t be used for anything else,” Finn said. “I can say with confidence that money is not going to be moved.”

Woodland City Planning Commissioner Kim Blaufuss, who wrote the “Against” argument for the voter’s guide, said she supports the department. But she questions why it needs roughly $600,000 more every year to fund three positions and equipment.

“We’ve got a good police department here,” said Blaufuss, who is a certified managerial accountant. “They’re very responsive. … (But) we have to look at that all and say, what can we really afford? What do we need?”

New officer positions in the proposition are budgeted at a step 3 pay-rate ($6,251 per month) rather than entry level ($5,376). Ripp said that the new hires could be entry-level, but the higher-budgeted amount allows the department to recruit applicants with more experience.

Blaufuss said Woodland officer salaries already rank near the high end of nearby agencies.

“We’ve taken some pretty big (tax) hits since 2015,” Blaufuss said. “It doesn’t look like we’re really showing the people what’s all coming down the pike.”

While the property tax levy rate has lowered in recent years, any savings has been more than offset by rising property values, so many residents are paying more in taxes each year, Blaufuss said.

In general, Woodland is a safe community, she said. Much of the petty crime in the city appears to come from the Dike Access Road Walmart. Blaufuss said the city could ask the store to bring in its own guards and reduce the load on cops.

Woodland police chiefs have recommended the department grow for years.

In 2017, a proposed tax increase to fund two officers and an administrative sergeant failed by 17 votes. And Ripp said that the city used to receive more than $200,000 a year dedicated to public safety from the gambling tax, which has evaporated since the Lucky 21 Casino closed in April.

Keller said the officers are averaging 400 to 500 hours of overtime each per year. It’s tiring officers out and making them sick, which only exacerbates the overtime problem. And sometimes a serious call ties up all three officers on shift, leaving the city uncovered, Keller said.

“I hate to say it, but it weighs heavily on families,” Keller said. “We work 12-hour shifts, kids get tired of not seeing Dad. They’re wondering when we’re going to be home more than one day at a time to spend time with them.”

And Keller said costs add up quickly, especially with the department’s vehicles.

Just the personnel costs of the two new two officers and a sergeant would cost $395,000 a year, including medical, retirement and other benefits, according to city figures. That amount would grow over time as officer pay and benefits improve.

In addition, upfront vehicle, equipment and training are projected to cost $300,000. Altogether, the city estimates hiring the three new positions would cost $714,562 the first year. Much of that amount will come from the purchase of three new police cars, so this cost would drop to $587,043 the next year, but steadily increase thereafter.

Blaufuss questioned why the levy rate needs to be permanent even though the costs drop after the first year. Finn said that the levy funds would replace the money lost from Lucky 21, which used to pay for equipment like new cars and tasers.

On average, the department replaces two of its cars every year, and it spent $118,000 altogether on the last two cars it bought, Keller said.

That’s a lot of money, officers acknowledged, but cops tend to drive hard.

“(If) we get a domestic violence assault, I’m not going to go 25 miles per hour while somebody’s being assaulted,” Gibbs said. “I personally very easily put 100 miles a shift on my car, just from patrol. (That’s) 400 miles a week in rotation.”


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