-- Editor's note: This is the second of a two-day series on a proposed public safety sales tax in Benton County. Saturday's stories examined what the measure would pay for.
Benton County is at a tipping point, law enforcement and emergency responders say.
Cities and the county have struggled to add enough firefighters, medics, police, deputies and corrections officers to keep up with the area's rapidly growing population.
Response times are lengthening and crime is rising. Some agencies have relied on existing employees working more hours -- and paid overtime -- because of short staffing. But the extra load is causing concerns within some agencies that those employees may burn out.
Never miss a local story.
The county is asking voters to pass a 0.3 percent public safety sales tax on the Aug. 5 ballot mailed earlier this week.
The tax would only be collected for a decade before expiring, but voters could then be asked if they are willing to keep paying the extra 3 cents for a $10 purchase.
While sales and property tax revenues have grown along with the population, they haven't been enough to keep up with the cost of doing business, officials say. The state is also taking more of the tax dollars while sharing less and less with local governments.
The public safety sales tax revenue would add about 29 police officers and deputies in Kennewick, Richland, West Richland, Prosser and Benton County and three firefighters in Kennewick.
Some local departments have added only one to three commissioned officers in the past decade.
Kennewick saw violent and nonviolent crime grow for the first time in a decade last year, said Kennewick Police Chief Ken Hohenberg.
Kennewick has employed fewer police officers than the state average for at least the past seven years. The state average was 1.68 officers per 1,000 citizens in 2012, while the city's was at 1.24. Even adding three officers last year and 12 more, should the sales tax pass, wouldn't bring Kennewick up to the state average.
Adding positions to any of the agencies would help the Tri-Cities as a whole because of how law enforcement and emergency responders cooperate, officials say.
It makes sense for law enforcement to combine resources because criminals don't pay attention to city and county borders when committing crimes, they say.
Jerry Hatcher, Benton County undersheriff, said local residents don't have to look far beyond the Tri-Cities to see communities where levels of gang activity and crime are higher. Keeping the level of vigilance that has kept the Tri-Cities a relatively safe community means adding resources.
"This is a good community," he said. "I think we are all proud of it."
More boots on the street
Kennewick, Richland, West Richland and Benton County all plan to put any new police officers and deputies they hire with public safety sales tax dollars on the street.
The 12 new Kennewick police officers would replace eight patrol positions eliminated with the creation of the city's criminal apprehension team a decade ago, and add another four, Hohenberg said. The team, which focuses on street-level narcotics, gang-related crimes, burglaries, car prowls and auto thefts, has been successful, making more than 1,000 arrests each year.
Kennewick's patrol would shift to six 10-person squads instead of four 12-person ones, allowing for a mid-shift covering 3 p.m. to 3 a.m., to put more police on the streets when there tends to be the largest call volume, Hohenberg said.
No supervisors would be added, but the corporal position would likely be eliminated, with current corporals becoming sergeants, he said.
Kennewick would receive an estimated $1.9 million in the first year, which also would cover an assistant city attorney position and two support staff. It would also free up money for three more firefighters.
Richland plans to add six police officers and three support staff with sales tax revenue, said Police Chief Chris Skinner. The city would receive about $1.2 million in the first year, which would pay for the full cost of the positions, including salaries, benefits and overtime, as well as the equipment needed for the officers to do their jobs.
One police officer would take over the detective duties that the department's computer forensic analysis expert has been unable to do because of how much demand there is for his help with evidence collection, preservation and extraction from computers, smartphones and mobile devices, Skinner said. The other five would be on-the-street positions.
Two of the support staff positions would take over crime prevention duties, such as neighborhood watches and community outreach, currently done by a police officer, so the officer can go back into policing, Skinner said.
The Benton County Sheriff's Office would add seven deputies, with five serving in patrol and two working as detectives and with the gang unit, Hatcher said.
That will allow the county to have eight or nine deputies on each of the four patrol squads, Hatcher said.
"It gives us more resources during our peak times of criminal activity," he said.
Having more deputies would help shrink response times, which can be long considering the area a deputy covers, Hatcher said. The sheriff's office also could be more proactive in its pursuit of gang members, tracking known members within the jail and the community and keeping an eye on their associates.
The tax would also pay for two county jail booking positions and four corrections officers, to process the expected increase in arrests. The estimated $1.9 million in the first year also would cover two support staff positions, a new inmate management system and radio maintenance.
Racking up overtime
Some emergency responders in the area earn as much as $20,000 to $32,000 a year in overtime, according to data received by the Herald.
Some is unavoidable because of the nature of emergency response. A medic can't clock off in the middle of treating someone with a heart attack. A law enforcement officer can't leave mid-chase or pause a murder investigation.
Some of the overtime is paid by the state or the federal government, and some of it is a result of understaffing. The new tax, if approved, might take some of that budget pressure off local governments.
Unusual circumstances -- such as three murders in Richland last year -- can add to overtime. It takes a significant amount of resources to investigate a homicide, and those resources might be needed for a prolonged period of time, Skinner said.
Richland police were paid about $653,000 in overtime last year. Some of that overtime was on the July Fourth holiday, when Joshua Snapp was murdered.
The overtime was split among 65 police department employees -- an average of $10,000 each.
Skinner and his staff are trying to cut down on overtime costs this year. In most cases, it means non-time-sensitive calls might wait until the next shift so the current shift doesn't stay on in overtime, he said. That's something other local law enforcement agencies already do.
Police and deputies also are called on to testify in court, and that often ends up as overtime as well, officials said. Those on special teams such as regional SWAT, also end up working overtime in that role.
West Richland paid only about $60,000 in overtime to police officers last year. Even if all that overtime could be eliminated, it still wouldn't be enough to pay for the salary and benefits for one police officer position.
Kennewick spent about $285,000 on overtime in the police department last year. That was split among 75 employees, with police officers earning an average of $3,400 in overtime, according to the data.
Benton County spent $162,000 on overtime in the sheriff's office and another $130,000 in overtime at the jail. Together, that was paid to more than 150 employees.
Even if the public safety sales tax is approved, it would take some time for agencies to fill all the additional positions.
The first revenue from the tax wouldn't be sent to the local governments until the second quarter of 2015.
It can take up to six months to a year to hire a police officer or emergency responder, Hatcher said. And most local agencies are operating with at least a few vacant positions due to normal turnover.
Police officers have to pass background checks, a polygraph, a physical and psychological tests, Skinner said. It's difficult to find someone who is qualified, as quite a few who have applied have a past criminal history that disqualifies them.
"Law enforcement officers have one of the most stringent selection processes of any public officials, largely because of the responsibilities that are given to them by state statute," Skinner said.