Featured Stories

Radio communication system upgrades requests $77 million from county voters

Washington County voters will be asked to pay a little more on their property tax bills to upgrade an emergency radio communications system that dates back to the 1990s.

Measure 34-243 on the May 17 ballot proposes a $77 million bond issue — repaid over 21 years — to convert the system to the latest technology, expand coverage and strengthen it against earthquakes and other disasters.

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 value. The rate may fluctuate with property values.

If voters approve the bond, payments would begin with 2016 property tax bills this fall.

Washington County now has almost twice as many people as in 1990, when voters approved a three-year levy to pay for the current system.

“This system is key to our ability to provide public safety services and protect our citizens and responders,” says Kelly Dutra, director of the Washington County Consolidated Communications Agency. The consortium, which runs the dispatch center, has 19 member agencies — the county, 12 cities and six fire districts.

The current system was built when most households used landline telephones. But most of the 500,000 calls into the dispatch center in 2015 — 160,000 of them to 911 emergency lines — were generated by cell or smartphones.

The center also handled 530,000 incidents generated by police and fire agencies.

“As our growth continues, so does our need to have a system that can not only meet today’s emergencies, but also tomorrow’s increasing demand as well,” says Larry Boxman, vice president for operations at Metro/West Ambulance based in Hillsboro.

About half the bond issue ($37.9 million) will be spent on radio equipment and towers, and $12.2 million for replacement of 3,000 analog radios still in use by member agencies.

The rest is proposed for reinforcement against earthquakes, $10 million; periodic technological upgrades over the next 20 years, $4.1 million; new radio consoles and other equipment for the dispatch center, $1.9 million, and a 24-hour alert system for fire stations, $1.8 million. About 10 percent is set aside for contingencies.

Clackamas County voters will see a $59 million bond issue for similar purposes on the same May 17 ballot.

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.

Although the county voters pamphlet contains no statements in opposition to Measure 34-243, Tom Black of Hillsboro asked the two candidates for District 3 commissioner at a recent forum why the county did not draw part or all of the cost for the upgrades from the county’s Gain Share money.

Under the Gain Share program, Washington County receives half of the state income taxes generated by new jobs created through businesses that invest at least $100 million under the state’s Strategic Investment Program.

The money is intended in part to offset property taxes lost through county decisions to exempt part of the value of investments, such as in equipment.

Washington County, because of investments by Intel and Genentech, is the largest beneficiary of Gain Share. During the first three years, it got virtually all of the $75 million paid out by the state. But state lawmakers, when they extended the program last year through 2029, put a limit on future payments to counties — and Washington County has to share some of that money with other local governments.

Glendora Claybrooks of Tualatin said she would look into the matter if she were elected.

Commissioner Roy Rogers, however, said that some Gain Share money already is committed to projects such as seismic reinforcement of county buildings and development of safe routes to schools.

Rogers also said that the county is only one of the 19 members of the communications consortium, and that responsibility for upgrades must be shared with the 12 cities and six fire districts.

Alternatives considered by the consortium board were another serial levy — although the levy that voters approved in 1990 was set at a rate of 45 cents per $1,000 of assessed value for three years, far higher than the rate for the current bond issue — or a loan repaid by the member agencies through their budgets.

When Clackamas County voters rejected a tax measure for similar purposes in 1990, the county then lent money for the upgrades and member agencies repaid the loan. But officials in Clackamas County say no money is available for a repeat loan should voters reject the May 17 measure.

This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.