SERS sales tax measure is to avert trouble with radios
SNOHOMISH COUNTY — On Jan. 12, the countywide radio system used by more than 40 police and fire agencies failed unexpectedly.
A malfunctioning controller halted emergency communications in western Snohomish County for 20 minutes, affecting 911 service for about 400,000 people, said Brad Steiner, executive director of the Snohomish County Emergency Radio System, or SERS.
“It was not a clear cut failure,” Steiner said. “Even (equipment supplier Motorola) said, ‘Wow, we’ve never seen a failure that way.’”
Since then, the system has experienced 29 more outages that impacted 14 parties, said Rosemary O’Neil, SERS public information officer.
County voters are being asked to consider Proposition 1, a new one-tenth of 1 percent county sales tax to help replace the nearly 20-year-old equipment.
Ballots for the Nov. 6 general election will be mailed Thursday.
The measure requires a 50 percent majority. If passed, it would add an extra 10 cents to a $100 purchase in the county, beginning April 2019.
SERS recently awarded a vendor contract to Motorola for a P25 radio system, including 5,000 handheld radios and four additional radio towers. P25, or Project 25, is a newer North American standard for two-way public safety communication.
It’s estimated to cost about $68 million, which includes regular updates and maintenance, Steiner said. Previous estimates ranged from $70-75 million.
“We’re definitely thinking long-term,” Steiner said. “Nobody wants to do this again.”
Nearly every city council and fire district in the county has publicly endorsed an improved radio system.
Snohomish Police Chief Keith Rogers said his staff members use the SERS equipment every day and expect it to function properly every time.“The current SERS infrastructure is at its life expectancy, and I am hopeful that a replacement of the system occurs sooner rather than later,” Rogers said.
SERS hopes to replace the system by 2020 when Motorola stops manufacturing replacement parts for the radios currently carried in the field, Steiner said. Some are already out of production.
Neighboring counties replaced their analog radio systems several years ago. Pierce County voters approved a one-tenth of one percent sales tax in 2011, and King County voters OK’d a levy lid lift in 2015 to fund the upgrades.
“We are one of the last counties to migrate away from this system,” Steiner said.
If the proposition fails to reach a 50 percent majority, there’s “no real plan B,” Steiner said. It would become a matter of compromise or another attempt at securing public funding, he said.
Opposition to the proposed sales tax argues that politicians should have saved for the cost of the system’s replacement over its 20-year lifetime, according to the voter’s guide.
The argument also claims emergency communication systems already receive funds from a 911 surcharge in residents’ telephone bills.
Enhanced 911 taxes fund the 911 telephone system that automatically provides a caller’s name, address, and phone number to operators. However, these taxes do not support local radio communication systems, according to the state Emergency Management Division.
For more on SERS, visit www.sers800.org
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