Curry County Sheriff John Ward will get his new radio microwave equipment after the board of county commissioners approved taking $822,000 from the County Road Improvement Fund Reserve to pay for it.
The towers have been in disrepair — sometimes even falling from their communications towers — and Ward has been fighting for funding to replace them for years. And deputies have had to respond to remote corners of the county with only cell phone communications, if available.
“I support what you’ve done so far,” Ward told the board. “You took the bull by the horns when you made it an emergency situation (earlier this month).”
Currently, there are five towers dotted around Curry County on which microwave radio equipment is mounted to provide communications for deputies and other emergency personnel in remote locations. The system manufacturer no longer makes parts for the system.
Ward proposed erecting seven new microwaves, one at each tower and one each at the courthouse in Gold Beach and the communications tower at the Brookings Police Department.
Not only would the system be digital rather than analog, but would provide a “ring” of redundancy. That would allow calls and radio dispatches to be delivered in case one system fails.
There was still a little hesitation, however, in using the road reserve funds, despite legislation passed in Salem four years ago that allows fiscally distressed counties, including Curry, to use such funds for things related to public safety. In the past, that has included patrol salaries and vehicles. Gov. Kate Brown has also sent a letter to the county urging them to use the funds to update the system.
County Accountant Louise Kalstrom said she was a little apprehensive is using road funds for the full cost of the new system.
“My understanding is the towers themselves are not 100 percent road and sheriff,” she said. “The percentage of towers not used by those two cannot be used to apply those funds to. If 90 percent is Sheriff’s Office, then 10 percent can’t be (paid for using) road funds.”
Commissioner Chris Paasch said fire and emergency services are all under the road department.
But Attorney John Huttl said he felt it was a legal precedent.
“Road funds are used to serve road department uses,” Huttl said. “The governor has written saying it’s an OK use of road funds. And users not on the road department will pay money to replenish the road fund. It looks like a defensible argument that this is a good legal use of the road funds.”
“I want the public to understand how difficult a position we’d be in if we didn’t have road fund reserves,” said Commissioner Court Boice. “It leads to what we need to do as a board. There has been a lack of effort the last two years to find additional resources. There’s tremendous responsibility and pressure on us to find a way. We can’t run a county on strictly property taxes.”
Commissioners have also been talking about charging the users of the equipment — everyone from municipalities to ambulances — to save up for repairs and replacement in the future.
Commissioner Sue Gold, too, wanted to make the dip into the road reserve funds a loan, rather than a “take.”
“How can the county pay this back?” Paasch countered. “I can’t promise the road department we’ll pay this back when we don’t have the resources. I’d like to but to promise through a loan I’m going to be able to pay them back? I can’t agree with that.”
Gold joined the other two in approving the policy.