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Give citizens the decision on emergency dispatch tax

Post by TNT Editorial Board / The News Tribune on July 9, 2011 at 3:06 pm |
July 8, 2011 5:11 pm

This editorial will appear in Sunday’s print edition.

A new tax to fix Pierce County’s fragmented 911 system could prove a tough sell this November – but let’s allow the voters to decide whether to buy it.

Right now, the County Council is split on whether to put the proposed tenth-of-a-percent sales tax on the ballot. The toughest opposition has come from council members Joyce McDonald and Dan Roach, who represent East Pierce County.

The dispute largely revolves around Puyallup, which has spent $8.5 million improving its emergency dispatch system. Its leaders say the city shouldn’t be forced to pay twice, for their own investment and for the technology of a consolidated county system. They’re also fretting about the fate of the 25 employees who work at Puyallup’s emergency communications center.

That’s not enough reason to sabotage a countywide vote – especially since county Executive Pat McCarthy is offering to offset Puyallup’s investment and fold the city’s dispatch staff onto the payroll of the expanded county system.

McCarthy and other county leaders have every incentive to leave East Pierce County smiling. Widespread public resistance to the new 911 system in Puyallup and its neighbors could doom the tax at the polls. Any tax measure this fall will already face the strong headwinds of a distressed economy.

We’re a long way from making up our own minds about the wisdom of any sales tax increase in this climate. But the plan’s supporters – who include the vast majority of police and fire chiefs – make a compelling case for at least giving voters the choice.

The Federal Communications Commission will require upgraded digital emergency communications technology in 2016; that’s a big, unavoidable expense. Beyond the FCC’s requirement, there’s the simple fact that Pierce County’s 911 network is ridiculously fractured.

Many other counties have a single, seamless regional system that handles all emergency calls for police, firefighters and ambulances. Pierce County has four “primary call centers” – not counting the state patrol and military – and those in turn hand off fire and emergency medical calls to two separate centers run by fire departments.

The technology is equally fragmented. Police radios don’t talk to firefighter radios. Some police radios don’t talk to police radios in other jurisdictions. It’s a mess, and it has to be cleaned up sooner or later.

The system would be unified already if local officials and fire departments hadn’t guarded their fiefdoms like pit bulls with steaks. Thankfully, most of the county’s first-response agencies have now abandoned the turf-protection mentality and support the proposed countywide system.

The plan shouldn’t be strangled in the cradle by council members anxious to keep the decision from the voters. Puyallup deserves reasonable concessions – and the county’s citizens deserve to vote on their 911 service.

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