ARTICLE: Radio System Gaining Ground

Hermiston Herald  12/19/2008

Radio system gaining ground
Officials consider two-county tax system for support

Umatilla and Morrow counties may need a special taxing district to support the 450-megahertz radio system installed by the Chemical Stockpile Emergency Preparedness Program in 2004.

CSEPP and Umatilla County Emergency Management representative Shawn Halsey brought this idea before the Umatilla County Local Public Safety Coordinating Council Dec. 9.

Halsey said 13 facilities in Umatilla, Morrow, Benton and Klickitat counties use the 450 system.

In Umatilla County that includes the cities of Pendleton, Hermiston and Echo, along with rural fire departments in Umatilla, Stanfield, Pilot Rock, the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation and the East Umatilla Rural Fire Department.

Until now federal dollars through CSEPP have paid for and maintained the system. For the past several years a user board has been considering what to do after CSEPP is gone.

If the 450 system isn’t maintained, many agencies would have to go back to a VHF system, which Kathy Lieuallen, 9-1-1 manager for the Umatilla County Sheriff’s Office, said would be like going backward.

To keep the 450 system running, Halsey said there are two options: Have each user pay a fee, or create a special taxing district. The cost of maintaining the system is about $737,800 per year.

Individual costs to agencies would be too large for those agencies to reasonably afford, Halsey said. It would cost Pendleton, the system’s biggest user, nearly $150,000 per year and smaller agencies such as Tribal Fire more than $4,000 per year.

“It’s a large deal for any agency, but especially the smaller ones,” said County Commissioner Dennis Doherty.

A tax would cost 17 cents per $1,000 assessed property value, Halsey said.

Creating the tax would take work. Halsey said there is no Oregon law allowing the formation of a tax district for a communications system, so he’s contacted legislators, asking them to draft such a law in the 2009 legislative session.

The earliest he estimates a tax could get on the ballot would be November 2009. If the tax passed, the earliest it could go into effect would be fall 2010, he said.

That leaves a gap between when CSEPP leaves and when the tax goes into effect, which would have to be bridged by fees or local taxes.

Even with meeting those standards, Halsey also cautioned that technology will continue to improve. He estimated the 450 system would be usable and current through 2016 at the latest.

After that, the system would need upgrades again, probably to some kind of digital system that doesn’t even exist.