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Counties seek to upgrade emergency communications

Washington, Clackamas voters to decide on bonds for joint system


Voters in Washington and Clackamas counties will decide separate bond issues to pay for the upgrade of their joint emergency communications system that dates back to the 1990s.

Both measures are planned for the May 17 primary election.

“We are going to the ballot at the same time because it’s a joint project,” said Laurel Butman, a deputy administrator for Clackamas County.

The Washington County bond, which commissioners set in motion Jan. 5, is for a total of $77 million repayable over 21 years. The cost to the owner of an average house is estimated at $20 annually, at a rate of no more than 8 cents per $1,000 of assessed property value.

The Clackamas County bond, on which commissioners are expected to take initial steps Thursday, Jan. 14, is for a total of $58.7 million repayable over 15 years. The cost to the owner of an average house is estimated at $25 annually, at a rate of 10 cents per $1,000 of assessed value.

“This system is key to our ability to provide public safety services and protect our citizens and responders,” said Kelly Dutra, director of the Washington County Consolidated Communications Agency. The consortium has 19 member agencies, including the county, cities and fire districts.

Government consortiums in the two counties operate a joint communications system, which links to recently upgraded networks run by the city of Portland, Clark Regional Emergency Services Agency, and the Oregon Emergency Response System for state agencies. The Portland city system serves several other agencies in Multnomah County.

In Clackamas County, it’s known as the Clackamas 800 (C800) Radio Group, which has 20 members.

Washington County commissioners have directed the county counsel to prepare an official summary known as a ballot title for consideration on Jan. 19.

Among the changes are new digital radios for police, fire and other emergency services agencies that now rely on antiquated analog technology — plus equipment and towers that extend communications coverage around Mount Hood and the southern Clackamas River.

The number of current tower sites in Clackamas County is 10, and the bond would pay for 14 more.

The current system was built after Washington County voters in 1990 approved a three-year levy for their share of costs. Clackamas County voters failed to approve its financing; the county lent money to public safety agencies that repaid the costs.

In addition to the age of the system — “it’s like having to work on a 1990s computer” — Butman said spare parts are not available from the manufacturer and vendor support will end in 2017.

“Our service is already having to purchase parts on eBay,” she said.

While the system’s technical services manager has kept things going, she adds, “I know he’s been extremely nervous about the state of the system.”

Ron Polluconi, technical services manager for the Washington County agency, said equipment will be purchased in a couple of years and technical upgrades will be obtained every two years afterward for about a decade.

“If that technology is extendable, we will continue to buy upgrades until such time as that technology dramatically changes,” he said.