Ballot measure proposed to support system upgrades
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Okanogan County voters are being asked to approve a 0.2% increase in the sales tax — 2 cents on $10 — to modernize the county’s emergency-communications system.
The proposal would establish a dedicated fund for emergency communications and facilities. The multi-phase, $5-million project would replace 12 of the county’s 14 mountain-top repeaters and add channels so that law enforcement, fire and EMS each have a dedicated channel.
Without dedicated channels, first responders have to wait their turn for a free radio repeater to talk to each other or to 911 dispatchers, according to Mike Worden, project manager for the communications upgrades and chief of special operations/communications with the county Sheriff’s Office. Worden has been briefing town councils and chambers of commerce around the county about the county’s aging emergency-communications infrastructure.
Because many of the radio repeaters are outdated and parts are no longer available, the county often buys a new unit instead of repairing an old one, Worden said.
The sales-tax increase has the support of most towns and cities in the county, as well as several fire and EMS districts and police departments. Twisp and Winthrop, the Twisp Police Department and Winthrop Marshal, and Aero Methow Rescue Service all back the proposal.
Okanogan County Fire District 6 in the Methow Valley supports the tax, as do Fire District 3 in the Omak area and Douglas/Okanogan County Fire District 15 in Brewster (which also operates emergency medical services). LifeLine Ambulance also backs the tax.
Omak and Brewster are taking a more cautious approach and have not sent letters of support. Worden hasn’t made a presentation to Riverside yet.
When he made a presentation to the Winthrop Chamber of Commerce several months ago, Worden explained the inadequacies of the county’s emergency-communications network and why the county believes a sales tax is the best solution, said chamber board member Julie Muyllaert. The chamber doesn’t typically take a position on ballot issues and hasn’t taken a stand on this tax, Muyllaert said.
Thus far, there doesn’t appear to be any organized opposition to the sales tax.
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). The county’s existing budget will allow them to replace nine more old repeaters over the next three years, swapping out three per year.
A 15th repeater is on Pitcher Mountain near Omak, which is owned by Okanogan County Fire District 3.
Having dedicated radio channels would 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.
The sales tax would also 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, Worden said.
If the sales tax doesn’t pass, the county will replace the aging equipment over two to three years, but would not be able to address the channel congestion or gaps in coverage. Congestion occurs when several agencies are active or multiple events occur at the same time — more than can be accommodated on just one channel, Worden said.
The new emergency-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.
Broad-brush estimates from vendors for new repeaters, multiple channels, and related hardware came in at $4 million. The county is budgeting for $5 million to be sure all costs are covered once they have precise specifications, 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.
Even after the county pays for the immediate upgrades, the tax would still be collected. Tax revenue collected after initial construction will go toward maintenance and future upgrades, since computerized equipment becomes obsolete every 15 years or so, according to the county. They anticipate having to refresh the equipment in 2035.
The ballot question specifies that the tax can be used only for “costs associated with financing, design, acquisition, construction, equipping, operating, maintaining, remodeling, repairing, reequipping, and improvement of emergency communication systems and facilities.”
State law was changed this year to allow jurisdictions to impose a sales tax up to 0.2% (up from 0.1%) for emergency-communications systems.
A committee composed of Worden and representatives from city police departments and government, EMS, and fire districts proposed the tax and an implementation plan after evaluating needs and possible solutions.
If approved, the tax would take effect Jan. 1, 2020.