ARTICLE: Special District Bill Finds Success

East Oregonian 04/17/2009

Special district bill finds success
CSEPP to be part of new state-wide system
Reporter: Erin Mills

House Bill 3254 is swiftly moving through the state legislature, thanks in part to a troupe of emergency responders and politicians from Eastern Oregon who traveled to Salem this week.

Dressed in uniform, Umatilla Fire Chief Mike Roxbury and others testified for the House Veterans and Emergency Services Committee in support of the bill, which would legalize a special taxing district for the bi-county 450 megahertz communications system.

Thirty-one public safety agencies in Morrow and Umatilla counties use the system. The Federal Emergency Management Agency built it – to the tune of $14 million – for the Chemical Stockpile Emergency Preparedness Program. When the Army stops destroying chemical munitions next May or June, its support of the radio system will end, leaving local populations to foot the bill.

Roxbury, the chairman of the bi-county 450 MHz communication system board, has been attending city council meetings for several months now, persuading local governments to support a special taxing district for the system. It costs $350,000 a year to operate and maintain, with another $300,000 – $400,000 a year for a component replacement fund.

The board’s proposed tax rate for the district is 17 cents per $1,000 of assessed property value, or $17 for a home assessed at $100,000.

Roxbury said area agencies considered implementing user fees to support the radio system, but discovered there was not enough money in their collective budgets. A taxing district that covers service areas is the only way, he said.

Going back to the old radio systems is not an option, Roxbury said, because those systems were antiquated years ago and would need to be rebuilt. They also must be replaced to comply with new Federal Communications Commission standards that require adjustments, called narrowbanding, by 2012.

Before the CSEPP radio system, Roxbury said, county agencies had little means of communicating with each other. Sometimes topography hampered communication within a department.

“From downtown Umatilla, I couldn’t talk to McNary, if I was talking on a portable radio,” he said. “Now, I can talk to agencies in Pendleton, Heppner or anywhere in between.”

The ability to communicate is particularly important for small, volunteer-driven jurisdictions that often call their neighbors for help.

The CSEPP system already is outfitted for narrowbanding and includes safety features such as emergency buttons on radios, which police officers and firefighters can press if they are unable to speak. A dispatcher then can send help.

The CSEPP system consists of 14 different transmitter sites with repeaters and radios at every site, a microwave system that carries signals from tower to tower and 600-700 radios in police cars, fire trucks, dispatch consoles and so on.

Although the CSEPP system has become part of daily life in Umatilla and Morrow counties, its efficiency and sophistication is still a goal in many states, including most of Oregon. Since 2002, legislators have been working to consolidate the radio systems of four statewide agencies – the Oregon Department of Corrections, the Oregon State Police, the Oregon Department of Forestry, and the Oregon Department of Transportation.

The Oregon Wireless Interoperability Network, or OWIN, is a vast improvement over the current system and will, as the name implies, allow agencies to communicate with each other. According to Bill Gallagher, OWIN’s public affairs manager, the new system is part of a nationwide effort that was sparked by the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.

Many of the firefighters who died in the attacks couldn’t be warned because their radio system was inoperable with other agencies. The same problem also occurred during hurricane Katrina, with similarly tragic results.

In Oregon, lack of communication caused problems during the floods in Columbia and Clatsop counties, when ODOT could not warn state police about impassible roads.

Interoperability also could have helped in the case of the Kim family, who were stranded in a remote southwestern Oregon wilderness for 11 days.

Gallagher said CSEPP system was one of the first of its kind. “The feds knew that if anything terrible happened at the depot, they had to have that,” he said.

The OWIN system is in the first phase of construction, creating a “microwave system backbone” consisting of mountaintop towers on the west side of the state. The Columbia Gorge area is included in phase one; Eastern Oregon (all of it) is phase two. OWIN will cost Oregon and the federal government $435 million.

It may be some consolation for Eastern Oregon taxpayers to learn of the plan to utilize several CSEPP towers in the OWIN system. Once OWIN is up and running, it will help pay for those towers in a partnership agreement.

The CSEPP towers will save OWIN about $4 million.

Gallagher said he didn’t know what would happen if Eastern Oregon voters decided not to tax themselves for the CSEPP system. “I don’t think anyone has game planned it out that far,” he said.

Umatilla County Commissioner Dennis Doherty, who has long been a champion of the CSEPP taxing district, said he has heard very little negative feedback about the possible new radio tax. What he has heard, he said, is some grumbling about tax compression.

Some areas in Morrow and Umatilla counties are tax-compressed, meaning they already pay the constitutional limit on property taxes, which Measure 5 set at $10 per $100,000 dollars of assessed value in 1991.

Another taxing district would reduce the amount that individual taxing districts gather in those tax code areas. In simple terms, everyone gets a smaller slice of the “$10 per $100,000” pie. This means that the other taxing districts – the library districts, the vector control districts, and the fire districts, to name a few – would all get a little less in compressed areas if voters pass the radio system tax.

Morrow County Tax Assessor Greg Sweek said Heppner and Boardman are in compression. He said when he ran the numbers for the radio system tax in Morrow County, he calculated the radio district would actually gather about 90 percent of the money it could have gathered had the tax cap not been in place.

Roxbury said the radio system board has taken tax compression into account in its financial strategy.

All Morrow County and most Umatilla County cities approve of allowing the tax district to exist. The real test will come in November or next May, when voters will decide whether to support the bi-county 450 MHz radio system.

Roxbury said if voters decline to support the CSEPP system, they will still have to pay a great deal to bring the old radio systems back to life.

“Everyone is going to have to pay for radio service, either by sharing in the district or going it alone and narrowbanding by 2013,” he said. “It’s more cost effective to be part of the district.”

Roxbury said he feared that, if one town decided not to accept the tax, it could have a domino effect because the cost of the system would go up for everybody else.

“I really can’t tell you what’s going to happen if it doesn’t pass,” he said. “It would be an absolute shame to lose something that we’ve already got when everybody else is still trying to figure out how to get it in the first place.”

Bottom Line: House Bill 3254 would create a special taxing district to fund a 450 megahertz communications system for Umatilla and Morrow counties. The proposed tax rate for the district is 17 cents per $1,000 of assessed property value, or $17 for a home assessed at $100,000.