DARKE COUNTY — Voters in Darke County will be asked to give their approval, or disapproval, to a number of candidates and issues on the ballot November 7. One local issue is the subject of some debate, namely Issue 3, or the countywide emergency communications levy.
Proponents of the .45-mill levy point out the funds raised through the levy are earmarked for emergency communications purposes only. It is estimated the cost to the owner of a residential property valued at $100,000 will be $15.75 annually, with the levy estimated to bring to the county $500,000 per year.
If passed by voters, the money, in the short term, will be spent to finish providing equipment, maintenance costs and user fees for the MARCS (Multi Agency Radio Communication System) for the emergency agencies of all municipalities within Darke County, as well as for the county’s agencies. The county’s emergency agencies have targeted April 2018 for the switchover to the MARCS system from its current VHF radios, and county officials have stated the change to MARCS will occur with or without passage of the levy.
In the future, money from the levy is slated to be utilized for whatever communications system upgrades or replacements are needed for fire, police and EMS units. The levy, if passed, has no end date.
Failure to pass the levy, however, will result in each municipality’s emergency agencies being responsible for funding their own communications. The county will pay the user fees for radios donated by the Ohio Department of Natural Resources (ODNR) for two years. After that, each agency is on its own.
In a letter to voters, Darke County Sheriff Toby Spencer said, “Not only is our current system old technology but it is also becoming unreliable. If any parts should be needed to repair our current system, they are no longer available through our vendors. With that being said, we are potentially one equipment failure away from not being able to send Fire, EMS, or Law Enforcement to homes requiring service.”
Local firefighters, law enforcement officers, and EMTs have been discussing the levy with people in their respective communities. There is among them agreement that something needs done, as it is difficult for the agencies within the county, as well as outside the county, to communicate with each other.
Darke County Emergency Management Agency (EMA) Director Mindy Saylor says passage of the levy would solve a big issue for all the agencies.
“It relieves a significant financial burden for all the departments,” she said.
“The problem we’re going to have [if the levy fails] is people are going to have to make a decision, such as Ansonia Police Department,” said Melissa Hawes, Darke County 9-1-1 Coordinator. “‘Do I provide all my people with a portable radio?’ Or do we not give them mobile radios, they only operate with a portable radio, which doesn’t have as much range as as the mobile radio would.”
Saylor added the levy would also fund pagers.
“For fire and EMS, the pagers are extremely important,” she said. “So departments would no longer have to purchase their own pagers.”
One criticism that’s been raised regards the ODNR radios. If a state agency is handing them down, how good can they still be? Are they already obsolete? Saylor says, “Do we think these radios are going to last forever? Absolutely not. But they are a starting point and they get us operational. It’s still great equipment. We’ve been using that model of radio for several years.”
“Some we might get a couple of years out of, some we may get 10 more years out of. It allows us to get started, it allows us to start phasing in new equipment, so we can start saving money. We didn’t need such a huge number to begin with,” Saylor said.
“It is an absolutely untrue statement that MARCS is obsolete,” she added. “Currently, the MARCS system is guaranteed through 2032.”
“This is a state-run system, so state agencies use this,” Hawes said. “They have to keep this up to date. It’s not just the local agencies that use it.”
“We know every year we’re going to have expenses,” Saylor explained. “We’re going to have the user fees for all the radios [to the State of Ohio], maintenance agreements, repairs, programming expenses — the levy will be used for that. But we’re going to start saving money, so when we need to purchase Arcanum Fire new radios, for example, we’ll have the money.”
Another complaint raised by some is the duration of the levy. Unless recalled or modified by future voters, the levy is perpetual.
“It’s permanent because public safety is permanent,” Saylor said. “We’re never going to not need public safety and we were careful with how the levy was designed. As technology changes, and maybe terminology changes, if you have a specific term in your levy language, you are tied to that. So if we say ‘MARCS portable radios’ we would be tied to that. So that’s why it’s been termed ‘countywide emergency communications.’”
“Nobody likes to pay taxes,” Saylor continued, “I live here. I own a home. But when I look at what we can accomplish, for such a small amount per household, I think it’s huge. I believe in the long run it will save taxpayers money.”
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