November parcel tax targets emergency response

05/29/2014

The Marin Emergency Radio Authority, a body of 25 agencies that manages countywide communication for public safety and disaster response, will ask voters to approve a parcel tax in November for $40 million in upgrades, including building two new antenna sites in West Marin, to increase service capacity and coverage areas for a decade-old, outmoded system by 2018.

MERA, which includes Bolinas and Stinson Beach Fire Protection Districts, the Inverness Public Utility District and the Marin Municipal Water District, was formed to be the backbone for 911 radio communications. In 1999, the joint powers authority authorized the sale of $26.9 million in bonds to finance a system of 17 sites, a debt that the individual agencies will be paying off until August 2020. 

Compared to the timeline usually applied to huge infrastructure projects, MERA’s usable life seems brief, but compared to the rapid evolution of technology, a first-generation computer system as old as Google’s incorporation and Apple’s first iMac might need a reboot, especially when the radio system is so crucial to communication for the coastal communities that have been afflicted by floods, fires and earthquakes.

Originally designed to accommodate 1,580 mobile and portable radios with gradual additions to accommodate a thousand more, MERA is now overburdened with nearly 2,900 users and a growing list of requests for more. An overloaded computer will place responders in a queue, giving them only a brief time to talk before moving them back to the end of the line, creating a potentially volatile situation if delays cause a disaster to get out of hand. The system also has certain dead zones in western and southern parts of Marin that four additional antennae will penetrate. 

Worse, MERA’s current operating frequency will soon no longer be available: the Federal Communications Commission imposed new technical requirements the system cannot meet and has requested MERA return its current frequencies by 2021, when it will likely sell them to private companies. Moving to a higher frequency—700 megahertz—could theoretically diminish the reach of radio signals, but the new technology and added sites would likely increase coverage. Upping the frequency will also allow Marin’s first responders to tap into the larger network of Bay Area agencies in the event of a regional disaster.

If the $29 parcel tax fails, the member agencies will likely have to shoulder the burden and pass the cost onto the district’s taxpayers anyway. IPUD’s costs, for example, will climb to an estimated $36,000 for bonds and maintenance if the tax fails, from a current $20,000. If the ballot measure passes, the estimated cost will drop to $14,000 after the final bond payment in 2020.

“For the Inverness Fire Department, it’s important that we’re able to communicate with the Marin County Fire Department, the National Park Service, [California Highway Patrol] and the Sheriff’s Office for all the calls that we run out here. We need to be involved in this system,” said Scott McMorrow, IPUD’s manager. “The system has got to be changed—or upgraded, however you want to view it—and what it really comes down to is does IPUD pay for it … and really put the stress on the residents of Inverness or do we go with an economy of scale and do it as a countywide ballot measure so the costs would come down?”

The smaller districts in West Marin have negotiated with MERA to take on some of their costs as part of the parcel tax. IPUD would have voice-activated paging capabilities and 13 replacement radios, which would otherwise cost the district about $6,000 each. If the parcel tax passes, the small fire departments may also ask for a change in funding formulas that would more accurately reflect levels of usage.

MERA has been asking its member agencies to pass resolutions in support of the tax and won its sixteenth endorsement in unanimous approval from IPUD’s directors at the Inverness Firehouse Wednesday morning.

The most recent polls conducted from late January to February showed support for the parcel tax somewhere between 62 and 64 percent, short of the two-thirds threshold required for the measure to pass. Like other recent parcel taxes, the proposal will exempt seniors with qualified incomes. Expenses will be reviewed by an independent oversight committee. 

After endorsements from each agency have been gathered, MERA expects to approach the Board of Supervisors in July to place the measure on the ballot.