Blake Peterson/staff photo
                                Exterior of the Kirkland Police Department.

Blake Peterson/staff photo Exterior of the Kirkland Police Department.

Kirkland city officials discuss progress on Prop. 1

The tax measure, which focuses on police services and community safety, was passed by the public in 2018.

After the public voted to pass the enhanced police services and community safety sales tax measure (or Prop. 1) almost a year ago, the city of Kirkland and the Kirkland Police Department (KPD) have been working on implementing its various components in the interim.

On Sept. 3 — after the Reporter’s print deadline — city residents were able to interact with one of the proposition’s most anticipated aspects: a proactive “ProAct” police unit made up of four officers and one support staff member.

The proposition addresses several public safety challenges prioritized by the community: property crimes; the relationship between mental health, drug addiction and homelessness; gun safety and school safety; new buildings, businesses and people; and the financial forecast. The city is achieving its outcomes through a voter-approved 0.1 percent sales tax — which roughly equates to one penny being added to a $10 purchase. This garners about $1.8 million a year.

“It’s exciting to finally be able to say, ‘It’s here,’” Kirkland city manager Kurt Triplett said.

Several elements encompass Prop. 1 in addition to the ProAct police unit ($680,000 a year) — which will focus on illegal drugs, car prowls, burglaries, mail theft, shoplifting and enforcing extreme-risk protection orders (ERPOs) and court-ordered gun forfeitures.

In January 2020, following winter break, four new school resource officers (SROs) will begin working at Finn Hill, Kamiakin and Kirkland middle schools and International Community School ($320,000 a year) through a partnership with Lake Washington School District. The same month, gun-safety training, which will include increased access to safe storage through subsidized trigger locks and gun safes, is slated to be implemented after KPD discusses the details further ($100,000 a year).

To help lower the number of police and fire calls with mental health complications, another neighborhood resource officer will be added to KPD and paired with a dedicated mental health professional ($260,000 a year). Funds will also be allotted to mental health and human services programs ($350,000 a year) and homelessness reduction ($100,000 a year). The latter project, which will come to be Kirkland’s first 24/7 permanent shelter, saw groundbreaking in April; it is on track to be finished next year, and will cater to women and families.

Background

According to city officials, Prop. 1 was in part a rejoinder to rapid city growth and community interests. After adopting its comprehensive plan in 2015, which covers community development over a 20-year period, the city soon found that metro growth was happening at much faster a rate than anticipated.

In September 2016, the five-year police strategic plan, which was passed as a work plan by City Council, was adopted. The plan entailed that outside professionals look at KPD’s minutiae to see what needed to be improved.

According to Kirkland Police Chief Cherie Harris, the strategic plan adopted showed that the department needed to be doing more proactive and community policing, as well as emphasize relationship building with the community. Harris said the findings spoke to a necessity to hire additional officers to create capacity for community policing to avoid being consistently reactive.

Triplett said while a city is growing, residents still expect basic services. Every two years, the city puts out a community survey that council later reviews. The survey asks the public to not only rank the importance of certain issues pertinent to a city but also rate what they believe the city’s performance is in each category.

The last survey happened in May 2018; the next will occur in 2020.

Fire and emergency medical services had the first “highest-importance” rating; police services came at number two. (A property-tax ballot measure for fire services will likely come to the fore in 2020.)

The public showed additional concern with the increasing number of property crimes like car prowls, shop-lifting and burglaries in the city. There were also combined problems with mental health issues, drug addiction and homelessness.

After the school shooting in Parkland, Florida in February 2018, residents also showed more interest in improving gun and school safety, at one point protesting at City Hall to question how the city was addressing the issues.

The 2019-24 general fund forecast, which is based on the 2018 ongoing budget and estimated 2018 revenues, presented a dilemma, though: total expenditures were going up faster than the resources the city could provide.

“We weren’t really set up to handle this well,” Triplett recalled.

As a result, the city began reaching out to the community through surveys, town halls and budget exercises. According to a July 2018 survey, which directly asked the public if they supported or opposed a proposal that “would fund enhanced police services and firearm safety investments in Kirkland,” 73 percent of the city’s community members said they would support it.

The initial survey proposal included nearly all of the components that would eventually be included in Prop. 1, such as the resulting programs, hiring needs and cost. In a separate July 2018 survey, 53 percent of residents said they would support a sales tax increase of one penny on a $10 purchase — the amount that would soon reinforce Prop. 1.

The measure was ultimately approved by the public in November 2018.

Looking forward

Kirkland Mayor Penny Sweet said the proposition was a natural outcome from talks the city had been having with the community.

“Clearly, with the amount of support that we’re able to get with the voters for it, it was something the whole community was interested in pursuing,” she said.

Some of the mechanics of the proposition have made it difficult to go about implementing it right away, which is why it might seem like, as Sweet noted, the city is “sitting on money.” Triplett said that, in actuality, the city has been working on installing the proposition since “day one.”

Because sales taxes under state law can’t go into full effect until after 90 days of its adoption and because there’s a two-month gap before revenue can be received after that, the city was unable to start collecting tax money for the proposition until spring of this year. Sweet said when Prop. 1 was being developed, council was adamant that the taxes not be property based, as it had seen the detrimental effects both to the environment and the community caused by property-tax initiatives.

To combat the slow nature of sales tax accessibility, council made a decision to allot funds to enable the police department to start hiring and training police officers necessary for the proposition before April.

Harris noted that the officers who will be taking on the positions as outlined in Prop. 1 are experienced officers being promoted. New officers will be taking the positions of their predecessors.

Typically, the hiring process for a new officer takes about a year. There is a five-month training period in the police academy, with a four-month post-training with an experienced officer. The hiring process related to Prop. 1 began in December 2018 and January as a result of council’s decision to provide funds before tax money could be used.

“It’s a really remarkable class of people — very diverse in a number of ways,” Kirkland communications program manager Kellie Stickney said. “It really complements our police department.”

“I’m happy to say that the officers coming on board are amazing,” Sweet added. “We have some incredible talent down there.”

Harris said the department, in sync with the city, has been looking at ways to increase diversity in the department. She said the department has been able to hire more women, men of color and officers who have worked in Eastern Europe, which could potentially benefit the Juanita neighborhood, which has a high number of Eastern European residents.

“That is a huge benefit, someone being able to connect,” Harris said.

While the hiring process has been extensive, Harris said it isn’t the first time the department has had to accommodate similar city needs. She said, though, that the attrition facing the police today is unlike anything she’s seen in her 26 years of service. She said that it’s never been so competitive with this many openings, though she can understand this based on the challenges presented by the job.

Harris said when she’s hiring a new officer, she always looks for someone who has a clear sense of respect.

“We’re not all about just enforcing the law,” she said. “We’re about trust-building. Very much when I’m hiring, I’m looking for people that are respectful, because through respect and relationship building is how we earn trust. And you can’t build that in a crisis. We need to do that before it happens.”

Harris said support from the Kirkland community has been consistently positive and called attention to the fact that that isn’t the norm.

“They want to partner with us; they want more community policing and relationships,” she said. “That’s not the case everywhere.”

Triplett noted that the sales tax supporting Prop. 1 makes it a dedicated funding resource, which means the city will be able to keep the ProAct unit permanently functional — it will never be competing with the rest of the city budget. There had previously been a ProAct unit in the city, but it had to be eliminated between 2008 and 2009 due to the recession.

Harris spoke of the impact the proposition will have on the Kirkland community.

“It’s a huge tool to solve crimes, prevent crimes from occurring,” she said. “We want to be a department that is proactive and builds relationships and uses teamwork to do our job. All those additional officers will benefit the community, not just us.”

The myriad items Prop. 1 covers is exciting to Sweet, who said she enjoyed working with the community so closely on making its projects a reality.

“For me, it’s the whole deal,” she said.

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