Commissioners: $58.7 million supports needed upgrade of radio network.

Even before they put it up for a public vote May 17, Clackamas County commissioners voiced their support for a $58.7 million bond issue to replace and enhance a joint emergency communications system with Washington County.

Commissioner Paul Savas says the Clackamas County system fields 200 to 400 calls daily with peak volume in summer.

“I encourage the voters to look at this seriously and consider supporting this measure, on behalf of all those calls and those people, their friends and family who at some point were in dire need of emergency care,” Savas says.

The 15-year bond for Clackamas County is projected at a rate of 10 cents per $1,000 of assessed valuation -- between $25 and $30 per year for the owner of an average home.

“This is an extremely large bond,” Commissioner Martha Schrader says. “But it’s for public safety and very necessary.”

Voters in Washington County will decide the fate of a $77 million bond issue for similar purposes in the same May 17 election. The counties own the system jointly.

The commissioners made their comments Thursday (Jan. 14) as they authorized the 20 participating agencies in the Clackamas County system — known as Clackamas 800 (C800) Radio Group — to get partial reimbursement from bond proceeds for purchases of radios and other equipment.

Under the terms of the bond, Deputy County Administrator Laurel Butman says agencies are eligible for 50 percent reimbursement for the cost of new radios, but must pay the other half themselves.

“While the city of Lake Oswego probably will not be taking advantage of that, we have agencies that are going to benefit from the ability to have the bond compensate them for some large radio purchases they are able to do early,” says Leslie Taylor, communications manager for Lake Oswego police and chairwoman of the C800 group.

But the Clackamas County sheriff, one of the system’s most frequent users, will be among the agencies banking on bond proceeds to buy replacement radios that use the new technology.

“This gives them a little bit of relief if the measure passes,” said Commissioner Jim Bernard, who likened the transition to the 2009 switchover that the federal government mandated for commercial television signals from analog to digital.

“It’s very expensive, but it’s also very necessary,” Bernard said of the technology that will enable emergency services agencies to communicate with each other under new federal requirements.

If the bond fails, Butman says agencies will have to pay the full cost of the new radios, and the sheriff’s budget takes that into account.

Two-county system

The joint system dates back to the mid-1990s.

Washington County voters approved a three-year serial levy in 1990 to pay for their system. Clackamas County, after voter rejection of a comparable measure, lent money to participating agencies in the C800 system. But county officials say they are in no financial position to repeat that this time.

“It’s time to upgrade the technology, and this is the best way to do it,” says John Hartsock, the C800 manager.

Washington County commissioners are scheduled to act Jan. 19 on an official summary, known as a ballot title, for their $77 million bond issue.

Clackamas County commissioners are scheduled to be briefed Jan. 26 on their official summary for their $58.7 million bond issue.

Chairman John Ludlow says communications system technicians are buying spare parts on eBay, the online auction house — and vendor support is scheduled to end in 2017.

“That’s going a little bit too far,” Ludlow says.

“It is time that we bring communication into the 21st century. I appreciate that this money is being advanced, because why buy old stuff? We should buy new stuff.”

Also part of the bond issue is a proposal to add 14 tower sites to the current 10 to expand coverage around Mt. Hood and the southern Clackamas River drainage. Ludlow says the county may be able to share sites with Portland General Electric, which is looking at its own upgrades.

“Our rural area is of great concern,” Ludlow says. “Our sheriff’s patrols do not have radios or cellphones that work in many areas.”

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