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.

Sales tax measure would pay for emergency radio replacement

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.

Talk to us

More in Local News

Members of South County Fire practice onboarding and offboarding a hovering Huey helicopter during an interagency disaster response training exercise at Arlington Municipal Airport on Tuesday, June 6, 2023, in Arlington, Washington. The crews learned about and practiced safe entry and exit protocols with crew from Snohomish County Volunteer Search and Rescue before begin given a chance to do a live training. (Ryan Berry / The Herald)
Snohomish, King counties train together for region’s next disaster

Dozens of agencies worked with aviators Tuesday to coordinate a response to a simulated earthquake or tsunami.

Police stand along Linden Street next to orange cones marking pullet casings in a crime scene of a police involved shooting on Friday, May 19, 2023 in Everett, Washington. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)
Lake Stevens man identified in Everett manhunt, deadly police shooting

Travis Hammons, 34, was killed by officers following a search for an armed wanted man in a north Everett neighborhood.

Ciscoe Morris, a longtime horticulturist and gardening expert, will speak at Sorticulture. (Photo provided by Sorticulture)
Get your Sorticulture on: Garden festival returns to downtown Everett

It’s a chance to shop, dance, get gardening tips, throw an axe and look through a big kaleidoscope. Admission is free.

Funko mascots Freddy Funko roll past on a conveyor belt in the Pop! Factory of the company's new flagship store on Aug. 18, 2017.  (Dan Bates / The Herald)
Lawsuit: Funko misled investors about Arizona move

A shareholder claims Funko’s decision to relocate its distribution center from Everett to Arizona was “disastrous.”

1 stabbed at apartment in Lynnwood

The man, 26, was taken to an Everett hospital with “serious injuries.”

A firefighting helicopter carries a bucket of water from a nearby river to the Bolt Creek Fire on Saturday, Sep. 10, 2022, on U.S. Highway 2 near Index, Washington. (Ryan Berry / The Herald)
Red flag fire warning issued west of Cascades

There are “critical fire weather” conditions due to humidity and wind in the Cascades, according to the National Weather Service.

A house fire damaged two homes around 1:30 a.m. Tuesday, June 6, 2023 in Marysville, Washington. (Photo provided by Marysville Fire District)
Fire burns 2 homes in Marysville, killing 2 dogs

Firefighters responded to a report of a fire north of Lakewood Crossing early Tuesday, finding two houses engulfed in flames.

Dolly Hunnicutt holds onto a metal raccoon cutout while looking through metal wildflowers at the Freeborn Metal Art booth during the first day of Sorticulture on Friday, June 9, 2023 in Everett, Washington. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)
Sorticulture brings gardening galore, fun by the bushel at 130 booths

“Every year there’s something different to see,” one attendee said at the opening of the three-day festival in downtown Everett.

Alex Dold lived with his mother and grandmother, Ruby Virtue, near Echo Lake. His sisters, Vanessa and Jen Dold, often would visit to play board games and watch soccer on television.
Troubled deputies at center of $1.5M settlement in Maltby man’s death

In 2017, Bryson McGee and Cody McCoy killed Alex Dold with their Tasers. Neither of them work for the sheriff’s office anymore.

Most Read