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News / Northwest

Longview considers new sales tax to expand police department

City Council discusses need to hire up to six more officers

By Brennen Kauffman, The Daily News (Longview)
Published: May 19, 2024, 5:05pm

Longview voters may soon be asked to pass a new sales tax to expand the city’s police department.

The Longview City Council held a workshop Thursday to discuss the need to hire up to six more police officers. The city’s most likely option to fund the new positions would be establishing a public safety sales tax levy.

Last year, the City Council stated its plans to run a police funding levy by the end of 2024. The new workshop allowed Longview Police Chief Robert Huhta to re-explain the need for more officers to the new councilmembers and make sure the city still wants to go forward with a potential levy.

Limited staff, rising need

The current minimum staffing level for a Longview police shift is four patrol officers and one supervisor. With the vast majority of calls needing at least two officers to respond, the city can quickly run out of options to respond to new emergencies without calling in help from other departments.

“I can do a lot of cop work with four cops and a supervisor, but I can only do one call at a time, and it’s just not enough to handle the volume of work that’s coming in,” Capt. Branden McNew said.

Longview’s police department has steadily staffed between 56 and 61 officers since 2011. The Longview police have also added other staff positions, like the behavioral health unit, who respond to some emergency calls but don’t have the full capabilities of a patrol officer.

Huhta told the council that at one point last year, the department had 15 officers unavailable for various reasons. Three of those officers were kept off duty during the investigation of a police shooting while others were in training, were out on medical leave or had family medical leave.

The last time Longview added more patrol officers to the department was 1980. Since then, the city has added around 7,000 residents and expanded the city limits west through a series of annexations.

The number of calls for police service has also increased over those 40 years. In 2023, Longview police received 43,500 calls for service. The number of calls has fluctuated widely over the last decade but is significantly higher than the 28,400 calls the department received in 1980.

“If you haven’t ridden with a patrol officer, you don’t realize how few cops are on the street when you’re out in an area by yourself, especially when you’re out west,” said interim City Manager Jim Duscha, who retired as Longview’s police chief in 2020.

The cost: More than $1 million

Adding the new officers would cost just over $1 million next year. Around $787,000 of that cost would be the employees’ annual salaries and benefits. Huhta said there would be an initial cost of $186,000 to add two new police vehicles, which would be needed to keep up with the additional officers.

The potential levy would create a sales tax increase of one tenth of 1 percent, or one cent for every $10 purchase in Longview. It would be the same type of levy that helps fund the 911 dispatch center.

Huhta estimated the levy would bring in around $500,000 per year for the first three years, which would not fully cover the hiring costs but would make the addition easier to budget. Huhta will work with Duscha and other city staff to present a final funding proposal to the council by July 11 — the latest the city would be able to submit a ballot measure to the Cowlitz County Elections Office.

“The more we look at it, there’s a lot more details that need to be researched out,” Huhta said.

Councilmember Ruth Kendall asked Huhta how easy it would be to hire the new officers once the positions were created. Huhta said he didn’t know for sure but that the police department had fielded strong pools of applicants during the most recent hiring cycles.