Sales tax measure would pay for emergency radio replacement

Snohomish County voters are asked to weigh raising the sales tax by 10 cents on a $100 purchase.

EVERETT — The radio equipment that local police, firefighters and paramedics use every day for dire emergencies and routine calls is aging and starting to fail.

A ballot measure aims to fix that. Snohomish County Proposition 1 would raise the sales tax by one-tenth of 1 percent, adding 10 cents on a $100 purchase. That would raise millions for new emergency radios and towers, then keep them running over time.

“We’ve never had a reliable funding source,” said Brad Steiner, executive director of Snohomish County Emergency Radio System, or SERS for short. “Converting this to a single funding source transforms everything.”

Ballots for the Nov. 6 election were mailed last week.

SERS manages a communications system for more than 40 police, fire and EMS agencies. Local governments help cover the costs.

Steiner said Washington’s other large urban counties have made the switch. Planning for the changeover here has been underway for years, but Steiner said there’s some urgency to forging ahead.

The old system is analog. Motorola has said it will stop supporting the current equipment after 2020. Some parts are out of production.

A widespread outage hit in January, affecting aspects of operations over about 20 minutes. In parts of the county, where about half the population lives, some emergency responders were unable to talk on their radios during the outage. Others could talk but couldn’t hear what others were saying.

More snafus have cropped up since then, though none as serious.

“We have a problem and we have a potential solution,” Mill Creek Police Chief Greg Elwin said.

Elwin is supporting the measure in his capacity as president of the Snohomish County Sheriff and Police Chiefs Association.

“The radios are the lifeline, when they’re doing sometimes dangerous work and they need to have that reliability,” he said. “The paramount concern right now is the aging equipment and the tremendous potential for failure and what that might mean to the folks calling 911 … My concern is when this happens at 2 o’clock in the morning in the middle of something.”

SERS is ready to start working with Motorola on the upgrade to a digital platform almost immediately, if the measure passes. The work is targeted for completion in 2021, at an expected cost of about $70 million.

In addition to 5,000 new hand-held radios, the upgrade would add four radio towers to the 19 currently in use. The new system would expand capacity to handle population growth.

“In many parts of our community, our emergency radio system is our only line of communication with everyone,” said Travis Hots, the fire chief of Snohomish County Fire District No. 22 in Getchell and president of the Snohomish County Fire Chiefs Association. “If the radio system fails, I can’t just pick up a cell phone and call a dispatcher.”

If approved, the new emergency radio tax would take effect in April. It would bring in an estimated $12 million to $14 million during a full year, depending on consumer spending. An advisory board of elected officials and public safety leaders would make budget recommendations to the County Council.

By state law, money collected under the sales tax must be used for the emergency radio system. E-911 taxes on phone bills are unrelated.

Tim Schmitt of Stanwood volunteered to write the statement in voters pamphlets against the tax hike. Schmitt said he learned of the issue through his involvement in local politics.

“When this system was started 20 years ago, they knew it was going to wear out, but they didn’t save any money for it,” he said. “If this system was so critical, then why didn’t they save any money for it?”

The county did seek a communications levy to support the emergency radio system in 1996, but voters rejected it. In the years that followed, county leaders set up the organization that became SERS.

Schmitt takes issue with using sales tax over other potential sources of revenue.

“We know that sales taxes are regressive, so they hit the most vulnerable people the hardest,” he said. “Because our politicians have been negligent in their duties, they’re asking our most vulnerable residents to make up for it.”

Homeowners in much of the county have seen recent spikes in property taxes to pay for state schools funding and transit. South Snohomish County also has the steepest sales tax anywhere in Washington, with nine of the top 10 rates. The top three are Lynnwood, Mill Creek and Mukilteo, tied at 10.4 percent.

A campaign supporting the measure is being run by a committee called Citizens for a Reliable 911, 2018. The group had received $8,500 in campaign contributions from local firefighter unions.

SERS has been run separately from the dispatching system in Snohomish County. That’s due to change.

The governing boards for SERS and Snohomish County 911 recently agreed to merge the two agencies effective Jan. 1. The consolidation is intended to lower costs and improve service.

At the beginning of 2018, the county’s two former dispatch systems also joined forces as an efficiency measure.

Noah Haglund: 425-339-3465; Twitter: @NWhaglund.

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