Puyallup City Council voted Tuesday to approve a preliminary agreement with South Sound 911 that could pave the way for about $3.5 million in radio system improvements at no cost to the city.
The Memorandum of Understanding, approved in a 5-2 vote, outlines a path for continued collaboration between the city and the emergency services organization. The South Sound 911 policy board must approve the agreement before it is enacted.
South Sound 911 is a regional hub that was created following voters’ approval of a countywide sales tax increase in the November 2011 election.
Currently, South Sound 911 is working to improve its regional network, and incorporating Puyallup’s emergency dispatch system into the fold would benefit both the city and the region, said Andrew Neiditz, executive director of South Sound 911.
“The City of Puyallup and (South Sound 911) have come a long way in exploring their willingness to explore ways to work together,” Neiditz said.
At-large councilman Steve Vermillion and Deputy Mayor John Knutsen voted no on the memorandum. Both fear the preliminary agreement makes a premature commitment, and that the agency has failed to provide data outlining benefits to Puyallup.
Vermillion said an earlier version of the agreement was more of a “dating version,” but the current memo looks more like a “marriage contract.” He said he worries Puyallup’s dispatchers will be in danger of getting the axe should Puyallup move forward with a formal agreement down the road.
“They’re integral to our city and I don’t want to see them go away,” he said.
City Manager Bill McDonald said this agreement is preliminary, and South Sound 911 is interested in exploring using the Puyallup dispatch center and current dispatchers in the regional system.
“We really don’t have the option of being on an island,” McDonald said at Tuesday’s meeting. “I think it is terribly important to the city. It has a high dollar value.”
The city could benefit from the agreement almost immediately. South Sound 911′s policy board Wednesday, April 24, will discuss funding for regional radio system upgrades, an investment that will include Puyallup if the board accepts the city’s agreement. The city will be reimbursed for the cost of radio dispatch improvements, according to the memo, which Neiditz said would be approximately $3.5 million for overall improvements.
Neiditz said Puyallup’s involvement in the upgrades would help streamline communications with Central Pierce Fire & Rescue. Puyallup’s towers and radio communications system support the fire district, which is a member of the Sound Sound 911 regional system.
“This would be a tremendous improvement for all the residents in Central Pierce,” Neiditz said.
Councilman John Hopkins said Tuesday that Puyallup residents deserve South Sound 911’s investment in Puyallup’s infrastructure.
“Our taxpayers are paying into (South Sound 911) and we should be getting some of that money back,” Hopkins said.
Knutsen said he doesn’t believe the taxpayers voted for South Sound 911. Voters merely voted to see improvements to their emergency services, he said, and that doesn’t mean jumping into an agreement that he believes jeopardizes their successful dispatch system.
“What’s in the best interest of the city is not necessarily in the best interest of the public,” he said.
Mayor Rick Hansen said he also has concerns about the lack of information, but thinks approval of the preliminary agreement is the best way to move forward at this stage.
“I don’t see this as anything hazardous,” Hansen said. “I see it as something to be careful about.”
Puyallup residents currently pay a 0.1-percent sales tax to the agency, along with residents in the rest of the county.
The agreement outlines a process for Puyallup to coordinate its communication assets with the South Sound 911 system to maximize efficiency of operations, according to the memo. It states both parties will work on a timeline for Puyallup’s possible membership on the policy board, and confirms South Sound 911′s responsibility to reimburse the city for improvements made to the dispatch and radio services.
Those improvements benefit South Sound 911’s entire regional system, but would specifically target Puyallup towers and infrastructure. Neiditz said contracts for improvements are already underway, and will move forward regardless of the outcome of the agreement with Puyallup.
“Using the Puyallup sites makes the most sense from an engineering standpoint,” Neiditz said.
Neiditz said the agreement is a clear statement that both parties want to work together, but it is too early to know exactly what a continued partnership will look like down the road.
McDonald said the joint agreement helps both parties to work together to stay current in a system that fulfills shared needs. He said the decision on a potential membership is up to the council, but this agreement sets a path to explore that possibility.
“Is that next week or is that five years from now? We don’t know,” McDonald said Friday.
The memorandum’s approval marks a dramatic shift for Puyallup, which initially opposed the creation of South Sound 911 and the tax measure funding it.
In November 2011, Pierce County voters approved raising the sales tax by a penny on every $10 purchase to help build a cohesive radio network and one or two dispatch centers. The upgraded radio system for emergency responders will comply with new federal standards and replace incompatible radio systems.
The Puyallup City Council initially voiced its opposition to a new tax. Then-Mayor Kathy Turner said Puyallup already had made improvements, and its residents essentially would be double-taxed if voters raised the sales tax.
“Paying twice isn’t something my constituents want to do, ” Turner said in July 2011, according to a previous News Tribune report.
South Sound 911 meets Wednesday to discuss both the agreement with Puyallup and funding for radio upgrades. Neiditz said action could be taken to adopt the memorandum, but a final decision isn’t certain.
To view the Memorandum of Understanding from the City Council’s agenda, click here.
Kari Plog: 253-597-8682