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Pierce County voters supporting 911 tax proposal

Post by Christian Hill / The News Tribune on Nov. 8, 2011 at 9:15 pm |
November 8, 2011 9:22 pm

Voters on Tuesday were approving a proposed tax increase to overhaul Pierce County’s 911 system.

Proposition No. 1, which would assess a sales tax of one-tenth of 1 percent countywide, was leading by more than 11,000 votes, election returns show. Pierce County Elections will release an updated ballot count at 9:30 p.m.

“We’re confident that the voters of Pierce County realized that we have a broken 911 system,” said Matt Frank, a Tacoma firefighter and co-chairman of the Fix911 campaign.

Frank said the campaign was successful in getting out the facts about the county’s need to improve its emergency communications.

The proposal, drafted by County Executive Pat McCarthy’s office and sent to voters by the Pierce County Council in July, would have created a new 911 agency by combining the county’s three largest dispatch centers and build two new dispatch centers: one for police and one for fire and emergency medical response.

It would also pay for upgraded radio equipment for police and fire departments that join the new regional agency. The Federal Communication Commissions has required non-federal public safety agencies to communicate using different radio channels by Jan. 1, 2013, to make efficient use of the radio spectrum for a growing number of users.

The money combined with a portion of the enhanced 911 tax would generate $14 million a year to make debt payments on the new radio equipment and dispatch centers and pay the operating costs of the new agency, known as South Sound 911.

Supporters, which raised 79 times more campaign money than opponents, say the proposal tackles the county’s aging and patchwork 911 system, providing residents improved service and saving participating cities and towns a combined $6 million annually.

Critics said the measure was bloated. They understood the need to replace the aging radio equipment but take issue with increasing the local sales tax for the next 25 years to pay to build and operate two dispatch centers and a regional agency.

Chris McNutt, who designed the Web site opposing the tax proposal, said he was disappointed in the results. He noted that the “yes” campaign raised significantly more money and it was difficult to get the opposing message across. Using logic and statistics to press their case wasn’t enough to counter the supporters’ emotional arguments that the tax proposal would protect the lives of firefighters and police officers, McNutt said.

“We didn’t have an emotional hook,” he said. “I personally wasn’t willing to invent one.”

He said supporters would look into legal action to challenge the tax proposal over a misprinted in the printed voters’ material.

The numerical percentage on the ballot and voters’ pamphlet incorrectly stated the proposed tax is one-hundredth of 1 percent instead of one-tenth of 1 percent. Officials caught the error too late to correct it on the printed materials and said it was inadvertent. County officials said it was a minor error that doesn’t affect the meaning or intent of the measure.

Citizens for South Sound 911, the pro-tax campaign, raised more than $103,000, according to filings with the Washington Public Disclosure Commission, the state’s campaign finance watchdog.

Tacoma lawyer Jack Connelly and his wife contributed $20,000. Unions representing firefighters and police officers contributed nearly $40,000. Two out-of-state radio manufacturers, Harris and Motorola Solutions, each contributed $5,000.

The campaign spent $82,541, PDC filings show. Weinman Consulting, owned by Fircrest City Councilman Michael Weinman received $65,375. Another consultant, Rebecca Hansen of Mountlake Terrace, received $6,721.

The anti-tax campaign raised $1,300, McNutt said, primarily from a Puyallup dispatch union and the Central Pierce firefighters’ union. Opponents didn’t raise enough money to have to file contribution and spending reports with the PDC.

The cities of Buckley, Fife and Puyallup, which operate their own dispatch centers, say they hadn’t decided whether they’d join the regional agency.

Twitter: @TNTchill

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