Kent wrestles with budget shortfall
By Chloe Wilhelm - Staff Reporter
Mayor Dana Ralph is on a mission to improve the city of Kent.
Ralph visited campus on May 8 as part of Highline's Civic Tuesdays, which features local leaders who discuss the importance of civic engagement.
She was elected as mayor last November after serving six years on the Kent City Council.
She said that after being elected in 2017, her main goal is to make sure that people recognize Kent.
"I really want to elevate the image of our city," Ralph said.
She said she is working on a variety of issues, including reducing homelessness, improving public safety, and bringing new businesses to Kent.
However, she said that this may prove to be a challenge due to Kent's current financial situation.
She explained that the city's current operating budget is $98 million, which funds many programs and departments, including public safety, parks and recreation, and other services.
Part of the operating budget was funded through the city's sales tax revenue, which mostly came from warehouses and manufacturing in Kent.
This changed in 2008 when Washington state moved to a destination-based sales tax system, which causes sales tax to be collected at the location where merchandise is received.
Because of this, the city of Kent's sales tax revenue has been reduced by $12 to $14 million per year.
Ralph said that the state of Washington was giving Kent $5 million per year in mitigation due to the loss in sales tax revenue, but this was taken away last year.
She said that this has led to a budget crisis for Kent, which will force the city to make cuts to many programs and departments.
"This will probably be our biggest challenge," Ralph said.
She said she is holding conversations with residents to decide what programs to cut.
"I want to do what's best for my city… but I can't do it by myself," she said.
Ralph said that the city's police department is one area that the budget crisis is already impacting.
She said that the Kent Police Department is understaffed by around 40 people, which has led to current police officers working overtime.
"Sixteen-hour shifts every few days is not uncommon," Ralph said.
However, she said she is working hard to improve this, and is also focused on reducing crime and gun violence with the Guns and Gang Task Force.
The task force is the result of a combined effort from cities in the South King County area, including Kent, Des Moines, Federal Way, Auburn, and Tukwila.
"[We want to] develop programs to help reduce the number of people stepping into gang activity," Ralph said.
She said that another issue that Kent is currently working on is homelessness and affordable housing.
Ralph said that there are some police officers in Kent who focus solely on homelessness, and work to locate camps and help provide services.
"It's a massive issue," she said. "We are working on trying to solve it… [and] prevent people from falling into homelessness."
Ralph said that in addition, Kent's Rental Housing Inspection program is working to improve and increase affordable housing.
The program will require that apartment owners have their units inspected every three years to ensure basic maintenance and health.
"We want to maintain the affordable housing we have," she said.
Despite these efforts, Ralph said that there are some issues that Kent will not be able to focus on, such as rent control.
She said that there is currently no rent control in Washington state, and since it is a state issue, there is not much Kent can do.
"We don't have an answer in Kent… it's a statewide issue," Ralph said. "I wish I had a better solution."
However, she said that Kent is focusing on other issues, such as bringing new businesses and manufacturing into the city.
Ralph said that by focusing on redevelopment, Sound Transit will be coming to Kent, with a new elevated Light Rail station across the street from Highline in 2024.
"We're excited about the opportunities here for redevelopment," she said.
Ralph explained that Kent's Economic Development Board is also working on encouraging businesses to come to the city by focusing on infrastructure and employment opportunities.
"We're trying to meet those needs, one business at a time," she said.
She said that she has hope that new businesses will find their way to Kent, such as the new Dick's Drive-In restaurant that is expected to open its Kent location in October.
Ralph said that despite the challenges, her biggest goal is to make sure people recognize the city of Kent and its potential.
"My job is to take care of my city and the people in it," she said. "We have a lot to offer."