Sales tax increase for emergency radios could be in next election

San Juan County Manager Mike Thomas brought a draft resolution in front of the county council that could help fund a radio upgrade for emergency services.

During its regular meeting on Dec. 3, the council was presented with a resolution to put a sales tax increase on the February ballot that would pay for improving outdated EMS communication.

“We currently, obviously, don’t have this tax,” Thomas said.

According to Thomas, there are 19 counties in Washington state that have this tax imposed. Grays Harbor County passed the same initiative in the most recent election 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 each county gets 70 cents per account.

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.

“In the larger conversation, it’s really paying for the communications system, not just necessarily radios,” Thomas said.

His suggestion is to initiate 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 noted during the council’s Oct. 22 meeting.

“Clearly we can’t pay for the system tomorrow,” Thomas said.

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

After the tax has paid for the capital costs — which should take about five years according to Thomas — it could be reduced to 0.1 percent or less to cover maintenance. There was some debate between the council and Thomas as to what the rate should be following the initial five years and the council was leaning toward a .05 or .025 percent rate. A set amount is yet to be determined.

San Juan County Sheriff Ron Krebs told the council during a June 18 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 meeting. “We need to really work on a significant upgrade in our communication system for operations today and moving into the future.”