The Pierce County Council decided Tuesday to ask voters to approve a sales tax increase for an upgraded police and fire radio system and a new dispatch agency with two state-of-the-art facilities.
But the council delayed until Aug. 9 a vote on whether to put two other proposals on the November ballot that would make the positions of council members and county executive nonpartisan. The council backed off after it became clear the measures would fall one vote shy of being forwarded to voters.
The public safety ballot measure would raise the sales tax by 0.1 of 1 percent – or one penny on a $10 purchase.
The sales tax increase would collect nearly $12 million a year in part to fund an upgrade of radio systems so police officers, sheriff’s deputies and firefighters throughout the county could talk to one another. Fixing current incompatible radio systems must be done to meet new federal requirements that start to take effect in 2013 calling for the switch to so-called “narrow band” channels.
The measure also would create a combined dispatch agency – South Sound 911 – with two new facilities for fire, medical and police calls.
The County Council, along with the Tacoma City Council, Lakewood City Council and West Pierce Fire & Rescue, have approved an agreement on how to spend the proposed sales tax increase.
County Council Chairman Roger Bush said police and fire agencies can’t in some cases talk directly to one another over radio systems, which produces delays in responding to emergency calls.
“Are we at a crisis?” Bush asked. “Yes, I think we are at a crisis.”
The county executive’s office has led talks for the past 18 months to develop the proposal and forge participation from fire and police agencies.
Calling the proposal “visionary,” Deputy County Executive Kevin Phelps said the measure will provide better protection for citizens and law enforcement.
Sheriff Paul Pastor said the proposal will improve communications among the various agencies. Taxes aren’t popular, but “what is a popular thing is being safe,” Pastor said.
The council voted 5-2 to put the sales tax increase on the Nov. 8 ballot, after limiting the tax to 25 years.
Council member Joyce McDonald said she was voting “no” because 100,000 people she represents in East Pierce County “are not yet on board” with the proposal.
Puyallup already has upgraded its dispatch center, which has caused Mayor Kathy Turner to object that her city’s residents would be double-taxed.
Council member Dan Roach also voted “no” after his amendment to prevent the tax from being used for 911 operating costs failed. Roach said he’s concerned some of the money raised would replace general fund dollars that could then be spent for other purposes.
But council member Stan Flemming said that tax dollars collected would go toward their intended goal under the proposal: public safety.
“The public needs to know that,” Flemming said.
On the two other proposed measures, County Council members voted to delay action that would ask voters to remove party labels from their positions and for the county executive.
The charter amendments needed five “yes” votes to be put on the ballot. With five Republicans on the seven-member council, it appeared the vote could fall along partisan lines. That was until Roach, a Republican, said he was voting against making the council positions nonpartisan. He said voters need a party label to identify where candidates fall politically.
“It becomes very difficult once you take the party label off,” Roach said.
Council members Tim Farrell and Rick Talbert, the lone Democrats, also said they would vote against making their positions nonpartisan.
McDonald, who spearheaded the measures, then made motions to put off votes to Aug. 9 so there’s time to reconsider the issue.
When Talbert asked to speak against a delay, Bush warned him not to use words such as “whim” or “abuse” that Talbert used Monday in opposing Bush’s proposal to ask voters to reduce the size of the council from seven to five members.
Talbert said he didn’t appreciate being “dressed down” in public by Bush.
The only apparent reason for Tuesday’s delay was to gain another vote, he said.
“I don’t believe that is acting in a transparent manner,” Talbert said.
Steve Maynard: 253-597-8647