County considers alternate radio upgrade funds

Voters may see a request for an increase in sales tax on the ballot early next year to fund upgrading the county’s emergency radio system.

“This conversation is not a new conversation, it’s been going on for a number of years,” County Manager Mike Thomas told council during its regular meeting on Oct. 22. “We’re budgeting, so it’s the perfect time to talk about a new radio system.”

Thomas’ proposition is to have an emergency communications sales tax of 0.2 percent to fund the project that is expected to cost around $3.1 million. The tax would generate approximately $1 million annually, Thomas added.

“At that amount, we would pay for the system and finance charges within five years,” Thomas said. “The beauty of the sales tax — since it’s a countywide sales tax — is it would pay for the cost of the system for all agencies that participate.”

The council has until Dec. 31 to agree to move forward with sending the tax to the public for a vote, Thomas explained. The simple majority vote could be done at any election, he continued, but the next available election is Feb. 11. The tax would begin collecting in April or May.

“I think that this is a great tax. It’s a tax that is made exactly for this,” County Auditor F. Milene Henley said, who explained that after the tax has paid for the capital costs it could be reduced to 0.1 percent to cover maintenance. “It’s a tax that would go into a separate fund so that it would have full transparency. The public would have no question of how it’s being used. I think it’s a good opportunity.”

If the sales tax failed to receive enough affirmative votes, each agency would need to find a way in its budget to pay for its share of the cost, Thomas explained. If that were the case, public works would not be able to afford its share, he added.

“I don’t think there’s any scenario where they could craft funds out of it. We have scrubbed that budget to death,” Thomas said. “To lay an expenditure in there related to the radio system, I don’t think is possible.”

To pull public works out of the equation would save $500-to-600 thousand, Thomas said. Council Chairmember Jamie Stephens added that he isn’t in support of removing that department from the discussion though, as it will eventually likely need an upgrade as well and this route is the best option.

“It’ll be a lot easier to make it a part of the package to begin with,” he said.

Orcas Island Fire and Rescue Chief Scott Williams expressed concern about how long the sales tax approval process could take. As it stands, the county’s plan is to work with Rock Island to find a place on the company’s towers to hold the new radio equipment. Williams said he fears if the agencies drag their feet too long Rock Island will give vital tower space to someone else.

“I’m supportive of a sales tax that can contribute to this project and potentially pay for it. Which is wonderful,” Williams said. “I think it’s a great benefit to the county and all the residents and visitors to the county.”

Councilmember Rick Hughes noted that since the county has a positive history with Rock Island, maybe the company would be willing to allow a bit more time for consideration.

“We’re all doing the same thing for the same folks. I think we should focus on getting something passed that will serve every fire department here and free up money for other life support and life safety issues,” Hughes said. “Let’s all get together as a team and work on it. … Let’s be positive together.”