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Emergency radio system needs replacement

SNOHOMISH COUNTY — The radios police and fire officials carry in the field are falling apart and in two years’ time will be obsolete.
Upgrading the countywide system will cost approximately $75 million.
The catch? There was never money put in the pipeline to afford that, meaning county officials are looking at funding options that each ultimately point to a ballot measure this August or November.
“We are very behind on replacing this system,” Sheriff Ty Trenary told the County Council last week. He said the radio on his belt was nearly 20 years old.
The alternative? According to Ralph Krusey, the head of Snohomish County Emergency Radio System (SERS), it means patching up an emergency communications network with increasingly hard-to-find parts. SERS stockpiled parts off of eBay for the meantime.
Any replacement plan means the public will likely have to open its wallets to pay for the next generation of radios. Cell phones are too vulnerable to service losses, Krusey said.
The County Council was handed a menu of options at its law and justice committee meeting last week by county finance management on how to raise the money.
The options presented were to send out a levy, or to create a one-tenth of one percent countywide sales tax. The council noted a sales tax would provide a long-term revenue stream when systems change again someday in the future. A sales tax measure would require a 50 percent majority; a large levy
would require a 60 percent majority.
Two other options involve a levy lid lift. A final option is to make a straight assessment on all cities and fire districts in the county, “but not all districts are in the same financial condition,” county finance director Nathan Kennedy said.A levy lid lift measures requires a simple majority.The target
may be the November ballot, which means the County Council would have to pull the trigger on a funding plan by Aug. 7. A funding ordinance should come to the council by June, Council Chair Stephanie Wright said.
It will take two years to make the changeover, Krusey said, which is why conversations are happening now when the time is nigh.
Krusey’s hope for SERS is that the new system can get running in 2020, the year Motorola will discontinue manufacturing parts for the current systems.
“The longer you go after 2020, the larger chance of catastrophic failure,” he said in an interview.
SERS already plans to have a vendor contract in place next month and a timeline shows it would construct towers in 2020. The towers facilitate communication between 911 dispatchers and authorities in the field.
“The radio system is the community’s radio system and it is for their protection,” Krusey said. “It gets first responders to your home.”
Almost every City Council and fire district board across the county have signed resolutions supporting a funding measure to keep SERS’ system alive.
A sheet shows that each would need to pitch in based on population. Everett’s contribution request is $6.8 million; Snohomish’s is $739,000; Monroe’s, $1.2 million. Fire District 4 would be asked for $1.1 million and larger Fire District 7 would be asked for $3.5 million.
Snohomish County itself is being asked for about $16 million for unincorporated county land.
Today’s analogue radio system, called 800 Mhz, was paid for 20 years ago with cities either paying cash up front or putting out bonds, such as what Monroe did.
The system went live in 2001 and parts are wearing out.
A failure knocked out service this January on the western side of the county for 12 minutes, Krusey said. Another instance knocked out a main radio in 2015 that required cribbing parts together.
The county’s debt funding for 800 Mhz currently comes from real estate excise taxes (REET). However, the way the county has set up a separate bond package for the County Courthouse project means more and more of that REET account will be going to the courthouse debt, Kennedy said.
King and Pierce counties launched ballot measures much earlier in preparation for the change.
King County voters approved a levy lid lift in 2015 and Pierce County voters approved a one-tenth of one percent sales tax in 2011, county finance manager Brian Hasleau said at the meeting.
Snohomish County already uses the one-tenth of one percent sales tax model for mental health and chemical dependency funding; the County Council approved it in December 2008.
The SERS system covers 940 square miles in the county and uses 20 towers. SERS notes that there are over 6,000 mobile (vehicle mounted) and handheld radios in use by police, fire and emergency medical personnel
on the system on a routine basis.

  

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