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.

Skagit 911 is seeking approval from its governing board to put a 0.1% sales tax increase on the November ballot.

That amounts to a $1 increase on a $1,000 purchase and would generate roughly $3.85 million annually and give the county’s emergency dispatch center a permanent funding mechanism to maintain and improve its infrastructure.

Skagit 911’s board will meet again in about two weeks to decide whether to ask voters for the increase. The deadline to put such a measure on the general election ballot is in mid-August.

The Skagit County commissioners are also considering a 0.1% sales tax increase to fund affordable housing and homeless services. This would not require voter approval.

At a Skagit 911 board meeting Wednesday, Executive Director Helen Rasmussen said emergency dispatch is a technology-based industry that requires steady funding to maintain and upgrade equipment.

“Things are changing at an incredibly rapid pace,” she said, adding that the phone system installed in 2017 is due for an upgrade likely to cost about $200,000.

The public expects 911 to be there when they call, and that expectation requires a functional phone system, dispatchers, computer dispatching tools and a countywide emergency radio system, Rasmussen said.

A larger facility will also soon be needed for the dispatch center to keep up with the growing county because ghere’s no space for more dispatchers, she said.

That lack of space was a problem during the COVID-19 pandemic because dispatchers could not properly distance themselves from each other.

The center determined three years ago that a new facility would cost about $10 million, and construction costs have only increased since then, Rasmussen said.

“With our current funding stream, we can’t plan for that,” she said.

While Skagit 911 has made strides in recent years in improving emergency radio coverage, Rasmussen said there’s still work to be done.

There are areas of the county where law enforcement, fire agencies and EMS providers lack radio coverage and cannot communicate with dispatch or each other, she said.

Rasmussen said the additional sales tax revenue would allow her to avoid raising use fees on the county’s law enforcement, fire and EMS agencies, offering them more stability.

Several members of the board said they agreed there is a need for more funding, but were unsure whether they were ready to clearly explain that need to voters.

The board is comprised of city and county elected officials, and leadership in the emergency medicine and law enforcement fields.

“We only have one good shot at this,” said Burlington Police Chief Mike Luvera, highlighting the difficulty in asking voters to approve a tax increase they previously rejected. “Long gone are the days when we could tell the voters, ‘There’s a need, trust us.’”

Rasmussen said her team is preparing educational material to explain the need to the voters.

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

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