Council approves 12 new police and 1 new firefighter for Yakima - NBC Right Now/KNDO/KNDU Tri-Cities, Yakima, WA |

City Council approves 12 new police and one new firefighter for Yakima

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YAKIMA, Wash- The Yakima City Council continues to surprise.  The council voted 5-2 to pass the 2012 budget including the six percent utility tax increase as expected.  However they also delivered some unanticipated good news for the police and fire departments and some welcome certainty for the budget.

Council member Dave Ettl was never on board with the council's decision to impose the tax increase to avoid cutting 13 city jobs.  There was speculation that he would even be part of Rick Ensey's plan to overturn the tax next year effectively unbalancing the budget leaving the city in limbo until it was resolved.  Instead, at Tuesday's meeting Ettl suggested a new way to spend that tax revenue which gives public safety a huge boost.

"I was hoping for something that wouldn't jeopardize our public safety and that would enable us to wrap up this year clearly", said Ettl.

While maintaining his opposition to the council-imposed tax increase, Ettl proposed reallocating the two-million dollars the tax is supposed to raise.  Initially the increase was proposed in lieu of eliminating the jobs of six police officers, one fire fighter, the assistant city manager, the assistant to the assistant city manager, a public records clerk, a finance service specialist, a fire inspector, and a few other city services.  However the council adopted Ettl's proposition to spend the money on training and equipping 12 police officers, salary for one firefighter, the gang free initiative program, and city legal assistants.

"I think the citizens of Yakima would rather know they were putting 12 police on the ground instead of a finance clerk or inspectors", says Ettl.

Fire Chief Dave Willson broke even staffing wise.  He has been trying to hold onto that one vacant firefighter position all throughout the budget talks.  At times it has seemed that job would be cut, and Ettl's initial proposal even left it on the chopping block. However council member Kathy Coffey amended Ettl's proposal so that it also funded the fire fighter position.

The police department fared much better than anticipated.  They were seeking funding to fill six vacant police officer positions.  However because of Ensey's talk of overthrowing the utility tax increase Captain Jeff Schneider, says he went to Tuesday's meeting prepared to hear the council would cut those six jobs this year or the beginning of next year.  Instead Ettl's proposal doubled the number of new boots on the ground for YPD.

"We'll be able to beef up certain areas and departments such as the gang unit, things like that and get up to a level of officer staffing that's more appropriate for a city our size", says Schneider.

Yakima currently has the lowest number of officers per thousand residents since the department started keeping records in the 80s. Schneider says that assuming all the new officers are rookies as opposed to trained officers from other law enforcement divisions, it would take 12-18 months to have the new officers self sufficient on the streets.

In addition to city employees who will be layed off or have to do extra work because of department cutbacks, council member Ensey was also not happy with today's outcome.  It appears he will longer have the votes to overturn the utility tax next year.  He says he doesn't oppose spending money to hire more officers, doesn't believe the tax will actually pay for any. 

"The utility tax increase and the extra revenue generated from that would simply be eaten up in pay raises and we wouldn't have any more police officers than we do now", said Ensey. 

City manager Don Cooper acknowledged Ensey's concern is valid.  Contract negotiations are still underway with the Yakima Police Patrolman's Union.  Cooper says that he can't guarantee the outcome of the negotiations.  However if the council tells him to make sure the utility tax funds twelve new police officers and one firefighter as opposed to going towards raises for existing employees he'll make sure that happens even if it means making cuts elsewhere.