Countywide proposal on November ballot
Editor’s note, Aug. 2, 2019 — This story has been updated to correct the annual expenses of financing the upgrades.
Okanogan County police, firefighters and EMS have to wait their turn for a free radio repeater to talk to each other or to dispatch.
That’s the situation the Okanogan County commissioners and sheriff’s communications specialists are hoping to remedy with a proposed 0.2% sales-tax increase that will be on the Nov. 5 ballot. The proposal is for a multi-phase, $5-million project to establish a dedicated fund for emergency communications and facilities. The tax would be 2 cents on a $10 purchase; and $2 on a $1,000 purchase.
Although the county has 14 mountain-top repeaters for emergency communications, each region of the county has just one channel, so only one call can take place at a time, said Mike Worden, chief of special operations/communications with the county sheriff’s office. In addition, there is a site on Pitcher Mountain near Omak that’s owned by Okanogan County Fire District 3. Repeaters at 12 of the 15 sites need to be replaced.
Moreover, the county’s radio repeaters are an outdated model that hasn’t been manufactured since 2011. The maintenance contract ends next year but, even now, the manufacturer has stopped making many of the parts, so it’s often more cost-effective to buy a new unit than to repair an old one, Worden said.
The county is hoping to do a major system upgrade, not only replacing the repeaters, but also adding channels so that law enforcement, fire and EMS each have a dedicated channel.
The modernization is important during everyday emergencies and major fires, Worden said. For example, firefighters handling a large blaze need to communicate about fire status and location. Meanwhile, law enforcement is trying to do evacuations, but the radio repeater can handle only one transmission at a time. “Who’s the priority?” said Worden. Agencies responding to a simultaneous house fire and vehicle collision face the same problem.
The mountain-top repeaters can send signals 20 to 30 miles because they’re not blocked by buildings, trees or hills. Emergency responders also use hand or vehicle radios, but those transmissions are easily interrupted by obstacles and travel only 5 to 10 miles, said Worden.
The county has already scheduled replacement this year of the three highest-priority repeaters — on McClure Mountain (near Twisp), Goat Mountain (near Pateros) and Lemanasky (near Loomis). “That will address the age, but it doesn’t address the capacity and effectiveness — the amount of traffic they can handle at once,” Worden said. The county’s existing budget will allow replacement of nine more old repeaters over the next three years, swapping out three per year.
The single channel spawns other problems as an emergency develops. Because county dispatchers using the repeaters can reach fire trucks only one at a time, they have to start over to transmit new information as the situation changes. It’s kind of like the game of telephone — but with higher stakes, Worden said.
Only two areas in the county have more than one repeater — McClure Mountain, which serves the Methow Valley, and the Pitcher Mountain site that serves Omak and the central valley. Through an agreement with Fire District 3 to share its frequency on Pitcher, the Methow Valley gets some benefit. “That’s helpful and cooperative, but if there are fires in both districts, FD3 tells the Methow to get off its repeater because it’s conflicting,” Worden said.
Additional channels would also provide flexibility, allowing first responders to share frequencies when needed. For example, local firefighters and EMS could double up during a complex wildfire, freeing up the EMS channel for out-of-area fire crews, Worden said.
New funding formula
The county’s communications specialists have been researching ways to increase the capacity and efficiency of the system for some time. A committee composed of Worden and representatives from city police departments and government, EMS, and fire districts (Okanogan County Fire District 6 Chief Cody Acord is a member) proposed the tax and an implementation plan after evaluating the current situation.
The sales tax would help balance the funding structure for emergency communications, which is currently borne entirely by the county and cities, with no contributions from police, fire or EMS. Restructuring this arrangement would give all user agencies input, and have them share the financial responsibility, said Worden. Sharing the cost is required by state law, he said.
Restructuring the financing isn’t dependent on the sales tax, but the tax revenue would make the payments more manageable, reducing the burden on cities by 60% to 65%. Since the county is obligated to make basic upgrades like replacing the repeaters, cities’ costs would increase by about 25% without the sales tax to offset the expense. The county uses 30% of the volume but currently pays 60% of the cost, Worden said.
An advisory committee has proposed a formula where police, fire and EMS agencies would pay based on their use of the emergency radios. Payments would be based on a three-year average, with busier agencies footing more of the bill. “We’re trying to come up with a clear formula that’s predictable and stable,” Worden said. Contracts based on a new formula would take effect in 2021.
The county has already upgraded network connectivity with microwave technology, with help from about $2 million received after the 2014 Carlton Complex Fire. The county expects to finish these upgrades in the easternmost part of the county this summer, Worden said.
If the sales-tax increase is approved, part of the fund would be put toward maintaining that microwave technology. It would also go into a replacement fund, since computerized equipment becomes obsolete every 15 years or so, Worden said.
If the sales tax isn’t approved, the county will still replace the repeaters, but the tax is necessary to be able to pay for new frequencies. There are several ways to do that — by repurposing and sharing frequencies already owned by different agencies or commercial entities, or by buying new ones, Worden said.
The county anticipates it would collect $1 million through the sales tax in the first year (2020). It’s projected to grow at a rate of 1.71%, generating $1.41 million in 2021 and $1.44 million in 2022. The tax would help create a fund for communications, but the county would need to borrow money or issue bonds to finance the network improvements and additional channels. That would incur annual principal and interest costs of $636,000 starting in 2021. It would be paid off in 2031.
The new communications system wouldn’t be built until 2022-23. System design and the bid process would occur in 2020. Coordinating frequencies — a complex process to ensure there are no conflicts with other users in the United States or Canada — would be in 2021. The county anticipates having to refresh the equipment in 2035.
According to the ballot resolution signed July 9 by the county commissioners, the tax would be used “solely for the purpose of providing funds for costs associated with financing, design, acquisition, construction, equipping, operating, maintaining, remodeling, repairing, reequipping, and improvement of emergency communication systems and facilities.” The tax would take effect Jan. 1, 2020.