$58.7 million measure on May 17 ballot would upgrade 1990s system.

Clackamas County will take its first steps this week in connection with a multimillion-dollar bond issue to pay for an upgrade of the emergency communications system it owns jointly with Washington County.

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,” says Laurel Butman, a deputy administrator for Clackamas County.

The Clackamas County bond is for a total of $58.7 million, projected to be paid off in 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.

The Washington County bond is for a total of $77 million, projected to be paid off in 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 value.

Washington County commissioners are scheduled to act Jan. 19.

Among the changes are new radios for police, fire and other emergency services agencies that now rely on antiquated analog technology — the agencies themselves will pay a 50-percent share totaling $5 million — plus equipment and towers that extend communications coverage around Mt. Hood and the southern Clackamas River.

“We have to build a lot more sites and towers than Washington County because we’re not flat,” Butman says.

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

Tower sites account for $16.9 million of the projected cost, and replacement of current radio infrastructure, $27.9 million.

The current system was built in the 1990s, 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.

Butman says the county and the local agencies are in no position to repeat that process.

In addition to the age of the system — “it’s like having to work on a 1990s computer” — Butman says 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 says.

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.”

The system is operated by multi-member consortiums in both counties. In Clackamas County, it’s known as Clackamas 800 (C800) Radio Group, which has 18 member agencies. In Washington County, it’s the Consolidated Communications Agency, which has 19 members.

Neither agency can place a measure directly on the ballot, but county commissioners can.

Butman says a system upgrade also is necessary for Clackamas and Washington counties to improve connections with the city of Portland, which also serves several agencies in Multnomah County; Oregon Emergency Response System, and Clark Regional Emergency Services Agency across the Columbia River in Washington state.

The resolution pending before Clackamas County commissioners this week would make some costs reimbursable from bond proceeds, assuming voters approve it May 17. Butman says board action to place the bond on the ballot will take place in February.

The board considered the issue in detail at a policy session back on Oct. 6.

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