It seems ironic that a ballot measure concerning upgrades to communication systems would be swirled in a controversy that involves a seeming lack of communication between its backers and those who would be affected by it.
Questions concerning the overall cost of building and operating the proposed enhanced 911 emergency system, and the trickledown costs Pierce County cities would have to pay to use the system, are garbled in speculation and misunderstanding.
“Everybody agrees that the current system is outdated,” Milton Mayor Debra Perry said. “But I just have a lot of questions about the new one.”
The proposed South Sound 911 agency will go to voters across the county Nov. 8 in the form of Proposition 1. If approved, the county sales tax will be increased 1/10th of 1 percent.
Milton contracts with Fife for emergency dispatch services, so the city’s residents will be paying a higher sales taxes for a county-wide system that they will not even use if all things stay the same – and they could since the Fife system already meets the higher federal standards the ballot measure hopes to bring to Pierce County. They are, however, not compatible with each other without further changes.
Perry also fears that the sales tax increase as well as the added tax on cell services will not be enough to pay for the system as it is presented. That means municipalities that would use the service could face increased costs for 911 dispatching services.
“That is where we get our heartburn.”
The radios required to use the new system cost about $7,000 to $15,000 a piece. Purchasing them would gut Milton’s police budget, she said, adding that the new system could also mean higher administrative costs than the current contract Milton has with Fife, further cutting into already cut-to-the-bone city coffers.
“I feel that this could just be a runaway train in terms of cost,” Perry said, noting that Pierce County officials either have crunched those numbers and do not want them released until after the vote, or they cannot answer basic questions like how much is the system going to cost and how much is it going to cost cities to use.
“I need more facts. That sounds like the plan is only half cooked.”
She is not alone.
Milton Police Chief Bill Rhoads embraces the concept of creating a regional communications network for first responders that is at the heart of the ballot measure. But a lack of bottom line costs make him fear the worst.
“We haven’t gotten any answers,” he said. “I just don’t see how the new system would do anything for the small cities. All I am worried about is how it is going to affect us. We don’t have a cost on this at all.”
His lack of information about the future costs associated with 911 dispatch and record keeping prompted him to look at all the options, ranging from staying with the Fife contract and having Milton residents pay the sales tax without direct benefits from it, to letting the contract lapse and going with the South Sound 911 system if the ballot measure passes to all options in between since the city has only $3,000 set aside for radio repair and upgrades each year. Footing the bill for the new radios would shatter that with a $150,000 expense.
“My answer to that is ‘who do I lay off first to pay for it.’”
Fife is in a different situation. It operates its own 911 dispatching system and contracts with other cities to handle their calls. Those contracts could disappear if the initiative passes, leaving Fife with difficult choices. It could either dissolve its own center and opt into the countywide system or continue its own center and strive to keep those contracted cities from opting out.
“The city, under any scenario, would maintain its center until a more firm implementation plan was developed and capacity in the new system created,” Fife City Manager David Zabell said.
At this point, there is not sufficient information as to what the operational assessment would be to Fife or impact to service as a result of the change to make any determination, he added.
“First the measure has to pass, then the South Sound 911 entity will be in a better position to develop more detailed analysis from which we will all be in a better position to make decisions.”
A system long time in planning
County officials have been busy providing information about South Sound 911 to service clubs and other groups around the county.
The tax increase is projected to generate $14 million per year. If Proposition 1 passes, the county would issue bonds to raise the money for purchasing radios and building new facilities.
County Executive Pat McCarthy noted there are other funding sources, including a 20-cent per month tax on phone service already in place. Also, money that partners in Law Enforcement Support Agency (LESA) would continue to be paid into South Sound 911.
McCarthy said some people incorrectly believe police departments around the county will have to come up with money to buy radios. She said the sales tax increase would cover that cost.
Kevin Phelps, deputy county executive, said if South Sound 911 is established, the larger partners would pay a larger amount of money into it based on the number of calls generated from their jurisdictions. This is the case currently with LESA. “Everyone will pay their fair share,” he said.
The county is under pressure by the federal government to upgrade its 911 dispatch center to a “narrow band” to meet Federal Communications Commission standards by 2013.
“Everyone has been upgrading systems to meet the federal mandate, but no one is there yet,” McCarthy said.
County officials have been meeting with Zabell and a memorandum of understanding is being drafted to get Fife on board. Phelps expects Fife City Council to approve it before the election.
“It would be in Fife citizens’ best interest,” Phelps said.
Puyallup Police Department opposes Proposition 1, but the fire district serving the city has endorsed it, as has the firefighters union.
Phelps said Puyallup “is pretty much there” in complying with the federal mandate.
Phelps said Motorola is working to shift users of its radios from an analog 4.2 system to a digital system. By 2015, it will not offer service or spare parts for the old system.
The City of Tacoma will upgrade in line with Motorola, even if the ballot measure fails, Phelps said.
“Tacoma recognizes the future is not in analog but in digital.”
Puyallup’s infrastructure is tied in with Tacoma’s as a result of an interlocal agreement, he added.
“So when Tacoma upgrades its system, Puyallup’s system will no longer work.”
Puyallup City Council is not informing citizens of this, he said.
“They will have to upgrade to a digital system,” Phelps said. “If this is about spending tax money, why have a system that is inoperable? It is common sense to have a county-wide system on a common platform.”
No other area on the West Coast has a governance approach that has one entity managing radio systems and dispatch, Phelps explained. South Sound 911 would be especially beneficial in the event of an earthquake, sabotage or other major catastrophe.
“South Sound 911 is light years ahead of anything else in how to manage a system,” Phelps said.
“We cannot continue to have eight different radio systems in Pierce County,” said Michael McGovern of Lakewood. He is involved with Citizens for South Sound 911, the campaign supporting the ballot measure.
The “yes” campaign has broad support from emergency dispatchers, firefighters and police officers around the county, McGovern said. He feels confident the measure will pass.
“It is a tough year for a tax increase, but people respond well to emergency services issues.”