Woodland council mulls public safety sales tax

A one-tenth of 1 percent levy is proposed to build new police station; 12 department employees currently share 1,000-square-feet space




After voting last week to delay a transportation tax proposal until next year, Woodland officials have shifted their attention to a public safety tax that would provide money to build a new police station.

Woodland’s police department shares its building with the city’s fire department and government officials. It lacks space for conducting interviews and storing evidence, and the lone detective’s office is in a janitor’s closet, officials said.

“Does it affect how we do our job on a daily basis?” Woodland Chief Rob Stephenson said. “Yeah, it does.”

Multiple Woodland council members believe a one-tenth of a percent public safety sales tax would act as the remedy for the police department’s space needs. A vote to place the measure on the November ballot is expected June 6.

Previously, council members had considered asking voters to pass a two-tenths of a percent sales tax toward the Scott Avenue overcrossing, a freight mobility project that is in its early planning stages. But instead, the council voted at its last meeting to postpone discussions on the issue until January 2012, based on a recommendation by Rosemary Siipola, transportation manager for the Cowlitz-Wahkiakum Council of Governments.

Any proposed tax in the current economic climate will be a tough sell, officials and residents agreed. But officials maintain the problem must be dealt with now, and were hoping the recession would result in a lower project bid for the city.

The Woodland Police Department has 12 employees, including 10 officers, who work inside a 1,000-square-foot space that includes a single holding cell. Having only one cell creates problems when the department needs to hold men and women or adults and children at the same time. When this happens, one of the suspects is handcuffed to a bench.

The building that houses the department is decades old and “substandard,” Stephenson said.

“We have managed to deal with it,” he said. “But it’s going to keep getting worse and worse and worse.”

The previous public safety tax proposal failed around five years ago, he noted, but the amount of support it received gave him optimism.

Woodland council member Marilee McCall suggested a $2 million bond would be needed to erect a new 10,000-square-foot building for the police on city-owned property on East Scott Avenue. McCall noted she has pushed for a new public safety building since joining the council in 2006.

The public safety and transportation taxes are both “critical” to the city, she said, but the public safety option has timing on its side.

The city won’t be able to tap into state or federal dollars this year for the proposed $60 million Scott Avenue crossing project. As such, it is better to take more time to educate the public on why a sales tax is needed, McCall said.

Fellow council member Benjamin Fredricks agreed with McCall about educating residents about the need for a proposed transportation tax. Meanwhile, he described the city’s need for a new public safety building as “desperate.”

“We’re beyond critical,” he said. “We needed this five years ago. We’re putting a detective in a closet and calling that an office.”

Al Swindell was the lone council member to vote against the decision to delay the transportation tax vote. The city needs both the crossing project to make traffic run more smoothly and a new police building, he said.

“It’s really a shame we’re putting off something that is such a desperate need, fixing the infrastructure of Woodland,” Swindell said, adding he would support a transportation tax when discussion of the topic resumed in 2012.

The council’s decision surprised Woodland Mayor Chuck Blum. Siipola’s presentation cautioned against waiting too long to seek public support for a transportation benefit district. That is exactly what the council elected to do, Blum said.

“Their postponing it to January is too long,” Blum said, adding the council put itself in a position to need to call for a special vote, which would unnecessarily cost taxpayer dollars.

Woodland residents told of the council’s plans to seek a public safety sales tax expressed mixed emotions.

Peter Coover, a resident of Woodland since the 1930s, said he would like to see the department reduce its force. He would reject a new tax on principle, he said.

“There are too many taxes in these hard times,” Coover said. “They say the recession is over but it’s getting worse.”

His wife, Mahina Coover, voiced her support for the plan.

“Anything to help the police and keep the people safe,” she said.

Fellow Woodland resident Jay Thomas said he understood the city’s dilemma but would wait until he had more information before deciding to support or oppose a potential public safety tax.

“Taxes are not something that are going to be popular right now with the economy what it is,” Thomas said. “But I can see where there would be a need for them to have more space.”

Ray Legendre: 360-735-4517, ray.legendre@columbian.com, www.twitter.com/col_smallcities.