Aging infrastructure a recurring problem for emergency responders
The Town of Twisp has been asked to support a proposed increase in the countywide sales tax to help fund an overhaul of the existing emergency communications system for first responders.
At its meeting last week, the council heard a presentation Mike Worden, chief deputy for special operations and communications with the Okanogan County Sheriff’s Office. Worden is part of an ad hoc working committee that has been preparing a plan to thoroughly upgrade a system he said is on the verge collapse. Other members of the committee are Okanogan County Commissioner Chris Branch, Okanogan County Fire District 6 Chief Cody Acord, Brewster City Clerk Misty Ruiz, Oroville Police Chief Todd Hill, and Wayne Walker with LifeLine EMS.
Letters of support have already been offered by the cities of Oroville and Pateros, the sheriff’s office, Aero Methow Rescue Service, the EMS Council for Okanogan and north Douglas county, Mid-Valley Hospital in Omak, Okanogan County Fire District 3, and the county board of commissioners.
Worden, who said he has supervised the sheriff’s office dispatch center for seven years, referred to the existing communications system of relay towers stretching from Flagg Mountain near Mazama, to Buckhorn Mountain in the far northeast corner of the county, to Coulee Dam in the southeast corner of the county.
Of the 14 existing towers, Worden said, 12 are characterized as “end of life” equipment — meaning they are old, costly to keep up, no longer manufactured, and their maintenance will no longer be supported by the manufacturers.
“We’re spending money to tread water,” he said. “We have a path to improvement.”
Sales tax proposal
That would be a proposed .2% increase in the county’s sales tax to support a fund dedicated solely to the communications system’s operations and upgrades, Worden said. The goal is to place the sales tax increase proposal on the November 2019 ballot.
The funds would be used to build a four-channel, simulcast radio system with multiple repeater sites that would serve law enforcement, fire departments, emergency services and public works agencies, Worden said. The first priority would be to replace existing towers before they fail, he said. Estimated costs are $4 million to $5 million, he said. The county could issue bonds to pay for the improvements based on the expectation of income from the tax increase to repay the bonds, Warden said.
The system would allow agencies to have concurrent transmissions to “eliminate/reduce colliding [radio] traffic,” according to proposal materials Worden gave the council.
“It can get congested,” Worden said, creating the potential for delay, confusion or missed calls for assistance. The new system would “allow more capacity, efficiency and effectiveness,” he added.
Lower costs for towns
Worden said that the assessments that towns in the county pay to support the existing system would decrease over time, by as much as 65%. Without a sales tax increase, he said, those assessments would go up by about 25%. Another advantage of a sales tax increase would be that visitors would be helping pay for the new system, he said.
“The work committee realizes we don’t have the necessary capacity in our existing budget” to fund improvements, Worden said. “We don’t see another way of getting there.” A dedicated fund from an increased sales tax would improve the county’s chances for grants, he said.
In the materials provided to the council is a proposal for an advisory committee to help with planning and operations for a new system. Recommended membership would one mayor or council person from a city or town; one county commissioner; one police chief or representative of the sheriff’s office; one member representing the fire districts and fire departments; and one member representing emergency services providers. Twisp Mayor Soo Ing-Moody said the group should also would need to be “geographically balanced.”
Worden said the proposed tax increase reflects the Legislature’s expected action raise the ceiling on sales tax increases from .1% to .2%. Funds would not only help pay for infrastructure improvements, but also offset operational costs, help build a reserve fund for future infrastructure needs, and pay off debt from the bond.
Ing-Moody said a letter of support will be drafted for the council’s consideration at its May 14 meeting. Worden said he would be making a similar presentation to the Winthrop Town Council, and will ask for their support as well.