A sales tax increase to fund upgrades to Kitsap 911's communications equipment will head to Kitsap County voters in November.
The Kitsap County Board of Commissioners voted unanimously Monday, June 28, to place the measure on the ballot. If approved by voters, it would increase the county's sales tax by one-tenth of one percent.
Such measures are authorized by RCW 82.14.420, which was passed by the state Legislature in 2019 to allow county governments to authorize propositions for a one-tenth of one percent tax to be used solely for the purpose of “providing funds for costs associated with financing, design, acquisition, construction, equipping, operating, maintaining, remodeling, repairing, reequipping, and improvement of emergency communication systems and facilities.”
Kitsap County already had a one-tenth of one percent sales tax for emergency communications in place. The 2019 legislation permits counties to charge an additional one-tenth of one percent tax, for a total of two-tenths of one percent.
According to commissioner Robert Gelder, chair of the board, the tax increase would bring in approximately $5 million annually, depending on the year, and would cost the average taxpayer around $16 per year.
Kitsap 911 is a public authority that provides 911 and emergency communication services throughout Kitsap County. It's governed by elected officials from Kitsap County, as well as the cities and fire districts within the county, and is funded by a mix of sales and excise taxes and user fees, according to Richard Kirton, executive director of Kitsap 911. Under state law, county commissioners are the taxing authority for the countywide emergency communications sales and use tax.
Kirton told the commissioners that much of the agency's communications infrastructure was last replaced or upgraded between 1998 and 2004 and is "at or near end of life."
“The radio system is failing to provide reliable emergency communications in all areas of Kitsap County, putting the public and first responders at risk," he said. "Our existing funding streams are inadequate to cover the required replacements and improvements, so after a multi-year planning process and funding discussions with our first response agencies and executive committee, our board voted to request you place an emergency communications sales tax proposition on the November ballot.”
Central Kitsap Fire and Rescue Chief John Oliver described the state of the county’s emergency communications as a “pivotal problem we have currently in Kitsap County.” Emergency communications is an integral part of first-responder safety, he said.
He likened the degradation of the current infrastructure to a frog slowly boiling in a pot of water. “Over the years, our communications system slowly degraded, but we really didn’t realize it,” he said. “We just dealt with it.”
It was only when Kirton’s staff did a coverage study that the extent of the problem became apparent. The study found that the majority of the county is below public safety communication standards; the proposed sales tax increase is "our opportunity to right our ship," Oliver said.
Oliver said Kitsap County’s VHF analog communications system is outdated; the metropolitan agency in Oregon he used to work for moved from VHF analog to VHF digital communications almost two decades ago. Additionally, that agency started with a 900 MHz system before upgrading to an 800 MHz system and, most recently, to a 700 MHz system. Compared to that agency, Kitsap’s current radio system is five generations behind current standards, Oliver said.
“As the chief of Central Kitsap Fire and Rescue, and representing all the chiefs, and the police chiefs, in the county, we ask the board of commissioners to pass this resolution and put this (proposition) on the November ballot," he said.
Steve Wright, executive director of the Washington Fire Chiefs association and a former chief of South Kitsap Fire and Rescue, said his association was heavily involved in the 2019 state legislation that allowed the addition of a second one-tenth of one percent sales tax to fund emergency communications upgrades. He was actively serving as the South Kitsap fire chief at the time, and said it was widely recognized "how important this was for Kitsap County to have this option to ask for this additional taxing.”
“We know that our system is old, needs to be replaced," he said. "It’s a significant cost, and the reason we were able to move this through Olympia was it was recognized statewide that this is a measure that agencies or counties need to pass."
He urged the commissioners to put the measure to the voters. “This measure is vitally important for public safety, for both our responders and the public,” he said.
Gelder said one of the big takeaways for him from a Kitsap 911 board meeting was how local regulations, such as building code requirements, had the unintended consequence of making it more difficult for radio signals to penetrate structures to "facilitate that (emergency) communication, inside and out." Upgrading the equipment will make it easier for the signals to penetrate those structures, he said.
The next step for the commissioners and Kitsap 911 is to educate the public. After the board unanimously voted to send the tax proposal to voters, Gelder said, “I know in the coming months there will be a certain amount of information and education about what this means that will need to be coming out to the public.”