San Juan County Council talks radios and housing

San Juan County emergency services may be getting an upgrade to its radio system soon, its first in decades. Sheriff Ron Krebs shared a slideshow proposal with the county council and members of the public during a regular council meeting on June 18 in Eastsound.

“This will greatly improve the coverage throughout the county,” Krebs said.

According to Krebs, 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. The cost to upgrade is $2.6 million.

“There are a number of ways to find this,” Krebs said, adding that there are grants through the state and port authorities that could help. “We’re fortunate enough that Rock Island has already done all the [structural] work.”

There is a sense of urgency, Krebs continued, as available space on a Rock Island pole is in high demand. Also, the county would need to have approval from both landowners and the federal aviation administration before pursuing the expansion.

Krebs highlighted his point by sharing a story from nine to 10 months ago when a deputy had a suspect at gunpoint but was unable to call for assistance because of the lack of radio coverage.

“It’s imperative that we’re able to call for backup,” Krebs said, explaining that there are daily reception issues. “But that’s what [dispatchers and emergency responders] deal with every day.”

Affordable housing was also discussed at the meeting on June 18. Ryan Page, San Juan County’s affordable housing coordinator, gave a brief overview of some upcoming projects the county may pursue.

“We fully intend on bringing all of these items again in the future for a more robust discussion,” Page said. “But, wanted to touch base on them and allow some sort of initial direction from council.”

Page explained that during the legislative session earlier this year, House Bill 1406 was passed allowing jurisdictions to retain a portion of the state’s sales tax allocation to fund affordable housing projects.

“From our perspective, it’s definitely a win-win for us,” Page said. “We’ve been trying to research the downside; we still haven’t found the catch yet.”

The bill allows the county to levy 0.0146 percent of the sales tax for funding. It doesn’t increase the tax, just takes money from the state’s portion of the allotment and puts it toward affordable housing pursuits. All it takes is a vote of the council to instate, Page explained. Friday Harbor could also opt to have its own program should it choose to do so.

The total amount of funds obtainable by this levy is $60,000 from the unincorporated segments of the county and an additional $20,000 from Friday Harbor itself. The money can be used for a variety of affordable housing purposes such as rental assistance, or acquisition, rehabilitation or construction of new houses. All three council members showed enthusiasm in pursuing this option, assuming that there isn’t any hidden fault to the program.

“The sooner we get it up and running, the sooner we start collecting funds,” Page said. “The longer we wait, the less money that we get, essentially.”