WATERLOO | Black Hawk County has agreed to pay the full cost of replacing the emergency 911 communications system more heavily used by city law enforcement agencies.
Members of the Board of Supervisors voted unanimously Tuesday to pay the bill, estimated at up to $15 million, through a bond issue and property taxes.
It's a reversal for the supervisors, who voted in November 2013 to finance the project only if each city using the system paid a proportionate share of the debt.
Supervisor Craig White said the board took the action now because cities were "failing to pay their fair share."
Waterloo Mayor Buck Clark had threatened late last year Waterloo police and fire — agencies representing more than 60 percent of the radio traffic — may pull out of the countywide communications system because the city was unhappy with the financing arrangements.
Officials from Waterloo and Cedar Falls have continued to lobby the board to take over the full cost, which could be broken out separately on property tax bills as an emergency management tax.
City officials said a countywide levy would ensure every property owner paid a fair share based on their value, would eliminate confusion of having each city come up with its own financing mechanism and would ensure the $510 million worth of property in tax-increment financing districts contribute to the cost.
"It would be more transparent," Supervisor Frank Magsamen said. "It would be listed in one place rather than multiple places … so that the public, our taxpayers, our property owners can see what the cost of upgrading the system is."
Board chairman Tom Little said he understood the financing was cleaner under a county levy. But he suggested the county, despite being only a small user of the radio system, would face the political blame of the higher taxes.
"The biggest concern I have is putting this all on the Board of Supervisors' shoulders," Little said. "The finger's going to be pointing right here."
Supervisor Linda Laylin said the county already gets blamed for high taxes because it collects the bills for cities and school districts. During the last county election she noted candidates were calling the county taxes the highest in the state, despite a county portion of the bill that falls in the lower third of rates statewide.
The board's action did create some questions over who will decide which radio system to buy.
When each city was expected to help pay for the project, the county Emergency Management Commission was ultimately expected to choose the system from proposals due in May. Since the supervisors are now paying the full cost, the EMC likely would only recommend a system for the board to consider.
The current radio system is leased from RACOM Communications and will no longer be supported by the manufacturer after 2016. The new system is supposed to meet federal interoperability standards, so various agencies can communicate more effectively during disasters and major events.