ARTICLE: Radio System District Gaining Support

East Oregonian 08/05/2009

Radio system district gaining support
Some eastern cities remain unsure

By Samantha Bates

Emergency responders in Umatilla and Morrow counties have banded together to propose a ballot measure that would create a taxing district to support an enhanced radio system. Most of the work to build the district has been smooth, but there has been at least one speed bump.

The long-term goal is to keep the 450-megahertz radio system – installed in many areas by the Chemical Stockpile Emergency Preparedness Program with federal dollars – up and running after the closure of the Umatilla Chemical Depot in a year or two.

The radio system in the two counties enables emergency responders from any of the towns to communicate with one another.

Mike Roxbury, chief of the Umatilla fire department and chairman of the bi-county 450 MHz communication system board, compared the system to winning a Ferrari in a drawing. It’s nice to have the premium car, but now the new owner has to figure out how to pay for insurance on the car and find specialized and expensive mechanics to keep it running.

“It seems like a great deal,” Roxbury said, “but all of a sudden there’s expenses on it the average citizen cannot afford.”

The 450 system is a Ferrari of a radio system, but regular Joe fire districts and police departments can’t afford the upkeep by themselves. So they’re asking taxpayers to do that.

County commissiners will approve the district before it goes on the ballot. Then voters will be asked to approve the funding for the district as well as board members to manage the district. The proposed tax is 17 cents per $1,000 of assessed value.

Supporters have been visiting towns in the two counties, seeking letters of support to join the district. Every town in Morrow County and all but one town in Umatilla County has signed on.

The only town to refuse to endorse the district is Athena, which was not originally part of the CSEPP system. When supporters of the district asked the city council for support, the council raised concerns.

Mayor Chuck Vickery said the council had questions the radio district backers weren’t able to answer. He also worried the city might have to pay for an additional system if the state was to establish an overlapping network.

“This is a Cadillac of a system that costs a lot of money and it’s not really necessary,” Vickery said. “We told them, ‘We can’t support the resolution you’re asking for.’ … How can a city council vote for a system we don’t agree with?'”

Vickery wants to leave the decision up to the voters, but he said the 450 board is telling them the city’s citizens can’t vote unless the council supports it.

“All we wanted to do was give the citizens a chance to take part in the county-wide vote,” he said.

Roxbury said the town needs to hold a special election, called an advisory vote, to let the citizens decide before the radio district gets placed on the ballot.

Vickery feels like the district is giving his town an ultimatum.

“We’re told either you vote for this or we will exclude your people from the county-wide vote,” he said. “I don’t think it’s fair. I don’t know why they’re using this resolution as a tool and telling the council how to vote on it.”

According to Oregon law, a part of a county that wants to join a district has to have a petition along with a resolution from the governing body, like a city council, approving that petition. In Athena’s case, the city council doesn’t want to provide that resolution.

The city council did go halfway, signing a resolution asking the citizens be given the opportunity to vote, but the council didn’t cast its support.

Roxbury said that doesn’t work. He maintains they have to complete an advisory vote.

“They’re trying to split it both ways and that’s not how it works,” he said.

So for now, Athena seems to be on the outs of the 450 board, and possibly out of the vote.

Another town that didn’t seem excited about the district is Milton-Freewater.

Roxbury recently asked that council if the town wanted to join since Milton-Freewater was not originally a part of CSEPP.

Roxbury wasn’t sure if the city would want to join, since it has its own radio system. Still, he wanted to give them the opportunity.

Council members were concerned they’d get stuck with the price tag of upgrading their own system to the 450 system. Roxbury said they could likely use the radios and equipment the CSEPP system has now to upgrade Milton-Freewater. The goal would be to get everyone on board and switched over before the federal dollars dry up.

Compression ‘a bargain for everyone’
A potential new taxing district also brings some concern about compression.

In Oregon there are limits to how much a citizen can pay in taxes. In general, the limit on government taxing, which would include the proposed radio district, is $10 per $1,000 assessed value.

When an area reaches that $10 limit, it’s called compression. The taxpayer doesn’t pay any more when a new tax is added, but it’s carved out of the other taxes already imposed.

In Umatilla and Morrow counties, there are many places facing compression, meaning other taxing entities lose money because of the limit.

Shawn Halsey, who currently runs the radio system for Umatilla County and the Chemical Stockpile Emergency Preparedness System, said the bi-county 450 Megahertz communication system board completed a study looking at compression. It took tax numbers from 2007 and added on the 17 cents per $1,000 assessed value tax for the radio district.

He said some areas faced compression. But overall, he said, that amount is far less than if police or fire districts had to pay to keep up the enhanced system by themselves.

For instance, the city of Hermiston would lose about $16,000 in taxes to compression. But if the police department had to support its part of the system, the city would have to pay $135,000 per year.

“It’s a bargain for everyone that has a role in the system today,” Halsey said.