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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Spokane Valley wants to bolster its police force, which could mean tax increases

Officials at a Jan. 31, 2024, meeting share data to help the Spokane Valley City Council formulate a strategy to hire more police officers.  (Nick Gibson/The Spokesman-Review)

The Spokane Valley City Council identified public safety as its highest priority on its 2024 legislative agenda. Just below that is tax relief for the city’s residents.

Those two critical points of interest may be at odds as the city looks to bolster the Spokane Valley Police Department.

Spokane Valley Police Chief Dave Ellis, assistant city-manager Erik Lamb and city analyst Morgan Koudelka provided the city council with information to help them shape a multiyear strategy for hiring more than two-dozen deputies to the staff of 91 already dedicated to serving Spokane Valley.

No action was taken at Tuesday’s council meeting, but the presentation started a long-coming conversation called for by council members and residents alike centered on a consultant’s call last fall for increased police services in Spokane Valley.

The city hired Matrix Consulting Group last year to study the efficacy of the city’s police services, which are provided by the Spokane County Sheriff’s Office.

For a flat rate of $84,900, the consulting group evaluated response times, calls for service and staffing needs, and suggested hiring 25 more deputies solely for the valley. They also suggested hiring three commissioned deputies to the staff of 37 shared with the Sheriff’s Office, and at least two civilians to handle administrative work.

The hires are intended to cut down on response times, which have become lengthier since 2016, Lamb said. They’d also ensure there are more officers in Spokane Valley to deal with the rise in calls for police service, which increased 17% from 2017 to 2022, according to the report.

The increase in calls for service and response times coincided with the population growing by more than 10,000 residents, according to census data.

“An increase in the population is driving our calls for service,” Ellis said. “It’s something that we’ve seen steadily since incorporation, and it seems like it’s accelerated even more for the last five, six years.”

Residents of Spokane Valley seem to agree that as the city grows, public safety is a top priority. Almost every comment shared during Tuesday’s open forum section of the meeting, and in every meeting this month, centered on the report’s suggestions and the perceived rise in crime in the city.

Barb Howard, a regular attendee at Spokane Valley City Council meetings, said the amount of crime “is getting to be a joke,” especially when it comes to drug usage. She said she is at the point that she thinks deputies should “just start shooting them.”

Data reviewed by Matrix found the department’s median response time of around 7 minutes for the “priority 1” calls for service in 2022 was normal. There were 226 priority one calls in 2022, which are calls that involve a threat to life and safety like reported assaults with a weapon, shootings and carjackings.

The response time for priority 2 calls, which have a potential threat to life or safety like burglar alarms, fights and road rage incidents, was around 15 minutes and 40 seconds.

Priority 3 calls usually involved reports of public intoxication and suspicious activity, and are considered nonurgent. They are responded to as call load and staffing allows. The department had an average response time of 32 minutes to the 13,803 priority 3 calls in 2022.

The majority of calls in 2022 fell into the second and third category, accounting for 46% and 48% of all calls, respectively. Matrix said response times for those two categories would likely see significant reductions with more deputies serving Spokane Valley.

While the city council has identified public safety as a top priority for 2024, it’s not clear how the city will fund, recruit or fill those positions.

The additional officers are estimated to cost some $2.75 million for the first year, with salary, benefits, maintenance, vehicle and indirect costs included, and $6.3 million total. Those costs would increase each year, and would be added to the city’s contract with the sheriff’s office, which will cost the city more than $29.6 million this year.

There are also additional public safety costs that should be considered, Lamb said.

Facilities to house the new hires would be needed, and the city may need to pay more to the county for things like detention services, use of the court system and prosecution and public defense services. The city will pay an additional $5.6 million to Spokane County for those services this year.

Ellis, Lamb and Koudelka identified a handful of potential funding sources, like an annual increase in property taxes, an additional public safety sales tax, utility taxes and traffic camera fines.

The first two would require voter approval and could be on the ballot as soon as the August primary, Lamb said.

Council member Al Merkel asked the presenters if cuts could be made to other portions of the city’s budget to fund the positions, like the parks department.

“The total parks budget is approximately $4.4 million, so even if you cut all parks and I don’t know if you’re suggesting that, that would not cover the full sum of $6.3 million,” Lamb said. “But that would eliminate all park services within Spokane Valley.”

Merkel said in an interview that he was not suggesting cutting the parks budget, but asking the question on behalf of his constituents who have asked him the same.

As for filling the positions, Ellis suggested staggering the hires over the next three years by adding eight to 12 officers annually. Prioritized units identified in the report, like patrol deputies and an additional homeless outreach deputy, would be the first hires.

“We created a homeless outreach officer position about two, three years ago, Officer Pratt, who’s done a very good job,” Ellis said. “And it’s been very effective at making sure that we don’t have some of the extent of the problem that some other communities do.”

Filling those positions according to the suggested timeline would be a challenge in and of itself. Deputies hired from other law enforcement agencies typically take three to four months to train before they are on the street, but a new recruit could take up to 12 months to attend training academy and complete agency specific training, Ellis said.

“What it means is, even if you were to hire an individual tomorrow, a brand new hire, they would not be on the street likely until after January of 2025,” Lamb said. “So there’s some challenges there.”

Sheriff’s Office spokesperson Mark Gregory said the agency has struggled to fill all positions in recent years, as have other law enforcement agencies across the nation. There are 35 vacant positions of the roughly 250 deputy positions authorized by the county commission.

Some of those vacancies could be attributed to the increase in authorized positions over the years, he said. The Sheriff’s Office had 227 authorized deputy positions in 2021.

“It’s tough to find qualified applicants, which we’ve done well with, but it takes awhile to get them trained,” Gregory said.

Last fall, the county commission unanimously voted to let the Sheriff’s Office continue to offer new hires signing bonuses of up to $25,000, a program started by former Sheriff Ozzie Knezovich in 2021 to recruit more officers. Knezovich told The Spokesman-Review the initiative made 2022 one of the agency’s best hiring years on record.

Spokane Valley deputies would be eligible for the hiring bonuses, which would increase the estimated annual costs presented Tuesday, Koudelka said. Lateral hires would also add to the estimate costs, as they qualify for higher salaries based on experience, Koudelka said.

Ellis will be discussing plans for recruitment and retainment at next week’s council meeting. Lamb said that listening sessions where public input will be gathered could be organized within the next month.

Mayor Pam Haley said it will take time to ensure a multiyear plan is feasible and fundable.

“It’s going to be really hard to recruit police officers if we say, ‘Well, we’ve got money for you for the next year, but after that we don’t have any,’ ” Haley said. “So we are going to have to have a plan on how to continue; it can’t just be for the next year.”

Editor’s note: This story was updated on Feb. 27, 2024, to correct the amount the extra officers will cost in the first year.