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Voters asked to approve radio system upgrades

Clackamas County voters will decide whether to spend a total of almost $59 million over the next 15 years to upgrade an aging emergency radio communications system that fails to reach areas such as Mt. Hood.

Measure 3-476 on the May 17 ballot would set a property tax rate of no more than 10 cents per $1,000 of assessed value to repay the bond. The annual cost for an average homeowner is estimated at $26.25.

A similar bond issue is on the ballot in Washington County, which with Clackamas County jointly owns a system that dates back to the 1990s.

Emergency services agencies say that because parts are no longer available and analog equipment is obsolete in a digital era, some of them will borrow against the pending bond to obtain replacements for some of the 1,000 existing radios.

One of the agencies is the Clackamas County Sheriff’s Office.

“We officers carry a lot of gear,” Capt. Jim Rhodes told county commissioners when they put the measure on the ballot earlier this year. “We carry handcuffs and a gun, we have belts and pouches and pockets full of gadgets.

“But arguably, the single most important piece of equipment we have is our radio — and that radio is only as good as the quality of the infrastructure that supports it.”

If Measure 3-476 passes, participating agencies must still pay half the cost of replacement radios from their own budgets. If the measure fails, they must pay 100 percent — and Deputy County Administrator Laurel Butman said the sheriff’s current budget takes that possibility into account.

Clackamas County is one of 20 members of the Clackamas 800 (C800) Radio Group, the consortium that operates the system.

“When you have an emergency, you have an expectation that the emergency response system will work without failure,” said Chief Fred Charlton of Clackamas County Fire District No. 1, Oregon’s second-largest district next to Tualatin Valley Fire & Rescue.

“One of the most critical components of that system is communications. Police, fire and emergency medical services are interdependent and it begins with reliable communications.”

The bulk of the bond issue will pay for replacement of radio and other equipment at $27.9 million, and the addition of 14 cell towers to the 10 existing towers at $16.9 million.

Some of them are planned in areas, such as Mount Hood and the Clackamas River drainage, where radio coverage is poor or nonexistent.

The bond also would pay for reinforcement of buildings against earthquakes and other disasters, and periodic upgrades of technology.

John Hartsock, the C800 group manager, said planners considered a much smaller bond issue — in the range of $30 million — but that it would not have allowed expansion of radio coverage.

An independent citizen advisory committee will be named by the C800 group to monitor spending of bond proceeds and progress on technological upgrades and construction.

Bond advocates say voter rejection would leave Clackamas County with a system that cannot connect with Portland — which operates the communications system for other agencies in Multnomah County — or the Oregon Emergency Response System, or Clark Regional Emergency Services Agency across the Columbia River in Washington state.

Based on a July 2015 public opinion survey, only 45 percent of the 400 sampled favored the bond — including leaners — and 34 percent opposed it.

A more recent survey put its favorability at 55 percent.

No arguments against Measure 3-476 were filed in the county voters pamphlet.

Back in 1990, when Washington County voters approved a three-year serial levy to pay that county's share of the current system, Clackamas County voters rejected a similar measure. The county then lent money to the system’s participating agencies, which repaid the loan from their annual operating budgets.

County officials say there is no money to lend this time.