East Oregonian 08/26/2009
450 radio district still in the works
Reporter: Samantha Bates
Athena has reversed course and signed on to the proposed 450-megahertz radio taxing district, while the Echo Fire district voiced its opinion against it and Milton-Freewater is still deciding.
Emergency responders in Umatilla and Morrow counties have been working to gain support from every town to form the taxing district, which would continue to fund high-end radio systems installed by the Chemical Stockpile Emergency Preparedness Program and FEMA.
The tax rate proposed would be 17 cents per $1,000 valuation.
When it was first proposed, Athena resisted. The city council didn’t like the idea of joining the district, and it wanted to leave the decision up to its voters. The council passed a resolution to that effect, but later found it wasn’t enough. To let voters have their say, the town had to either hold an election before the election – to let voters say whether they wanted to be included in a vote on the district – or the council had to pass another resolution supporting the district. At its Aug. 13 meeting, the council approved the latter. “We didn’t have a choice,” said Athena Mayor Chuck Vickery. “It was the only way we could include the citizens of Athena in the county-wide vote. We did what we had to do.” City councilors Carol Speed, LaVerne Mitchell, John Shaver and Deborah Hayward voted for the new resolution. Councilor Eric Pickard voted against it. Mike Roxbury, chief of the Umatilla fire department and chairman of the bi-county 450 megahertz communication system board, said it didn’t matter to him if Athena joined the district or not. “I thought they should be in the district because they need interoperability with the region,” he said. “Now they want to be a part of it, it’s fine with me.”
Echo Rural Fire District
Merle Gherke, chief of the Echo Rural Fire District, said his board voted firmly against joining the 450 district. Gherke’s chief concern was the radio system wouldn’t have a tone alert. When fire departments or ambulances are called on radio systems, a specific tone plays to alert each district.
Roxbury said it’s a complicate issued. He said while the 450 system itself doesn’t tone alert, a computer can convert signals and send out a tone on another pager system, similar to what responders use now. But Roxbury had another solution: using two-way 450 radios instead. He said it would work better for Gherke. But Echo Fire voted not to be part of the system, and that doesn’t bother Roxbury. To map a district, Roxbury only needs support from cities, not fire districts. He said he has support from the city of Echo.
At its Monday work session, the Milton-Freewater City Council discussed the 450 issue for about an hour. In the end, it still had too many questions and decided to table the decision until next month. The council said it felt a bit like the neglected stepchild of the county, expressing concern about joining a district over which it didn’t have control. “We’ve always controlled our own destiny,” said Councilor Brad Humbert. “We’ve always been up here in the north end of the county and they’ve kind of ignored us. They kind of continue to take and take and take, even when we don’t have very much to give ’em. We’ve always found a way to keep control of our own destiny. And when you let go of that, you become a pawn. You’re doing whatever they say. What happens if they don’t come through?” The council worried its taxpayers would buy into the system, then be forgotten when decisions and upgrades are made in the future. The council’s other biggest question was how the 450 system would work with the statewide program, a 700 megahertz system known as Oregon Wireless Interoperability Network (OWIN). “Our system is good enough that the state wants to use the existing infrastructure for OWIN,” Roxbury said. “When the state system is done, anyone with our system can roll to a different channel on our radio and talk statewide.” Roxbury admitted the 450 system will not last forever. He guessed there may be some conversion in five to seven years, but he wasn’t sure. The sooner voters approve the district the more time it will have to save funds for an upgrade, he said. “Each delay makes it that much less likely to convert when the time comes,” Roxbury said. “We’ll delay a conversion until we have enough to pay for it.”