Skagit 911-Overworked

Dispatcher Melissa Heller mans her console in July 2015 at the Skagit 911 call center off East College Way in Mount Vernon.

The Skagit 911 Board of Directors voted Wednesday to recommend a 0.1% sales tax increase be put on the November ballot.

This potential tax increase still needs to be approved by the Skagit County Board of Commissioners before it can appear on the ballot. However, all three commissioners sit on the 911 board, and all voted in favor of Wednesday’s recommendation.

Helen Rasmussen, executive director of Skagit 911, said a 0.1% sales tax increase will generate about $3.6 million a year in additional revenue, and will provide a reliable funding source for new technology, emergency radio improvements and possibly a new facility.

The recommendation was passed by a 7-1 vote.

Burlington Mayor Steve Sexton opposed the recommendation, saying Skagit 911 has not justified its request for such an increase.

A 0.1% sales tax increase — which would add $1 to a $1,000 purchase — represents a 47% increase in the dispatch center’s revenue, he said.

About 35% of the county’s sales tax revenue is collected in the city of Burlington, and more than a third of that comes from automotive sales, Sexton said. Residents in neighboring counties come to Burlington to buy cars because they know that with a relatively low sales tax in Burlington they can save a few hundred dollars.

“Every incremental increase in sales tax forfeits a portion of that competitive advantage,” he said. “We can’t lose sight of that.”

Skagit 911 is predominately funded by an existing 0.1% sales tax, as well as user fees charged to city and county emergency services. Rasmussen said this proposed sales tax increase would keep user fees in check.

She said county leadership has been discussing the need for a new dispatch center since 2013, but has never put aside money to fund it.

This new funding would give them the opportunity to do so, she said.

Mount Vernon Fire Chief Bryan Brice said the need for more funding is clear to anyone who works in emergency services.

He said public officials are sometimes reluctant to ask for the money they need to do something well, and instead settle for what they’ve got. He said it’s time for Skagit 911 to ask for funding to build a modern system.

“Maybe if you’re not in the business you can’t see … but we are woefully behind,” he said. “It all starts with 911.”

— Reporter Brandon Stone: bstone@skagitpublishing.com, 360-416-2112, Twitter: @Brandon_SVH

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