Measure to fund emergency radio upgrade on ballot

Voters have the chance to approve a sales tax increase to improve emergency radio communications in San Juan County during a special Feb. 11 election.

The measure includes two taxes: one of 0.05 percent without an expiration date and a 0.15 percent tax that expires after 60 months — or 5 years — to be used for the design and construction of the communications system.

At a December 2019 San Juan County Council meeting, San Juan County Manager Mike Thomas said collection of the tax would begin in April or May. The total amount of revenue generated will depend upon the actual sales that occur.

There are presently 19 counties in Washington state that have this tax imposed. Grays Harbor County passed the same initiative in November 2019 to fund an upgrade to its radio system.

Washington state currently has a monthly tax of 95 cents per month on all landlines, wireless and Voice Over Internet Protocol services to fund emergency communication systems. Twenty-five cents goes to the state and the county receives 70 cents per line.

Thomas said since San Juan County is so small, it doesn’t always get as much money as it needs, such as enough to make major radio upgrades.

San Juan County Sheriff Ron Krebs told the county council during a June 2019 meeting that upgrading the system has been a topic of discussion among fire and sheriff personnel for at least the last 20 years. He explained that the current radio system was installed in the 1960s, with a repeater added in the 1970s to expand coverage. However, it is still very limiting, he said.

“This should solve 99 percent of our problems with communications,” Krebs said, noting that much of the county currently experiences scratchy radio connectivity or no service at all. “Virtually the entire island [will be] covered.”

The system is scalable, redundant and customizable; it would require no building as it would use 20 existing towers owned and operated by Rock Island and T-Mobile; and it would allow interoperability with federal and state agencies, Krebs explained.

“I do support a sales tax that will be able to provide income for this radio communications project. Radio communications is a big priority for the Orcas fire district,” Orcas Island Fire and Rescue Chief Scott Williams said at the June 2019 meeting. “We need to really work on a significant upgrade in our communication system for operations today and moving into the future.”

OIFR will be holding two one-hour public information sessions about the measure on Friday, Jan. 31 at the Eastsound Fire station. Presentations will begin at 4 and 5 p.m. There will be time at the end of each session for questions.

Colleen Smith contributed to this story.