Ballots out soon for 911 sales tax

A minor campaign glitch: Some passersby have taken the “911 Yes” signs to be a comment on the Iraq conflict.

But the signboards placed at roadsides throughout the county actually promote an upcoming sales tax hike proposed by Kitsap County Central Communications (Cencom), the 911 dispatch service for Bainbridge police and fire and more than a dozen other agencies.

“It never occurred to us that people would take it the wrong way,” said Ron McAffee, Cencom director, noting that the campaign committee now has affixed smaller placards reading “Vote Proposition 1” to clear up the confusion.

Voters will decide the one-tenth of a cent sales tax hike – 10 cents on a $100 goods purchase – in a special mail-only election April 22. Ballots are expected to go out next week.

The levy would generate $2.7 million in 2004, with revenues from the first several years going toward construction of a new 911 center in West Bremerton.

The sales tax hike would replace the last three years of a five-year, $11.8 million property tax levy approved by Kitsap voters in 2001 to pay for the new facility.

After the dispatch facility is paid off, the new revenues would support Cencom’s general operations. McAffee said the sales tax would be a fairer way to spread the cost of services among everyone who uses the system.

The tax will also keep pace with county growth, he said, which has driven increases in call volume of 5-9 percent each year.

“This is my quote,” McAffee said, “but it will even be supported by crooks, if they buy things instead of stealing them.”

Founded in 1976, Cencom followed the introduction of “911” as the universal emergency number, and consolidated the dispatch services for police and fire agencies around the county.

The switchboard last year handled more than 230,000 calls, according to agency statistics.

Cencom is governed by a 13-person policy board that includes the county commissions, four mayors, and two Bremerton City Council members, three fire commissioners and the county sheriff.

It employs 58 persons, and this year operates on a $4 million operations budget.

While the agency has grown considerably in 27 years, it is housed to this day in the same cramped and decrepit building, a former toll booth at the foot of Bremerton’s Warren Avenue Bridge.

In 1996, Kitsap voters defeated a property tax hike that would have funded a new facility.

“They understood the need and knew how critical it was, but wanted us to find a way (to build) that didn’t put it all on the backs of property owners,” McAffee said.

That all changed in February 2001, when an earthquake jolted the Puget Sound region. The dispatch center, which does not meet current codes for seismic safety, sustained minor damage.

The policy board responded by putting another property tax levy on the next ballot, this time earning voter approval.

“It didn’t make any sense that the building we would need in the event of an earthquake could be one of the first casualties in an earthquake,” McAffee said.

With designs completed, Cencom will break ground on a its new home in West Bremerton in June, with operations to begin there in late 2004.

Among the selling points for the sales tax hike, McAffee said, is stable operations funding once the building is completed. Cencom hopes to wean itself away from the support of user agencies, who now provide about 75 percent of funding through their own property tax revenues.

Bainbridge Police and the Bainbridge Fire Department together paid about $200,000 for dispatch services in 2002, funds that came from local property taxes.

The other 25 percent of funding comes from an excise tax on local telephone service, but those funds are obligated to pay off debt from a recent equipment upgrade.

Last year, the agency had to dip into its reserve fund to keep from cutting staff, McAffee said, making new and stable funding a must.

“We’re funded about as tightly as we can be,” he said.

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