JP proposes countywide sales tax to pay for communications upgrade

Thursday, March 21, 2019

Carroll County voters may be asked to approve a countywide sales tax later this year to pay for upgrades to the county’s emergency communication system.

District 1 Justice of the Peace Jack Deaton raised the idea during Monday night’s March meeting of the Carroll County Quorum Court, saying the county doesn’t have any other realistic means of paying for the upgrade that he says is badly needed.

“We’re on borrowed time on these radios,” Deaton said. “… I’ll probably get shot on the way home, but guys I think the only answer to this thing is trying to do a sales tax to pay for this thing.”

Deaton added that he would prefer a sales tax, which would be paid by all consumers in the county, rather than a millage that would be paid only by property owners.

“I wouldn’t want to do a millage, because that’s not fair,” he said. “I would probably say 30 to 40 percent of our calls is from people passing through or non-property owners.”

Deaton did not say how large a tax might be necessary to pay for the upgrade. Any unused revenue from the sales tax could be used for roads, Deaton said, and the tax also could include a “sunset clause,” meaning it would only be in effect for a specific time period.

“There’s no way I can think of that we can come up with between $4 million and $5 million in the next three years,” Deaton said. “We can’t come up with the payments. The principal on that kind of money is going to run about a half-million dollars a year on a 12-year loan.”

The communications upgrade has been a topic of discussion at several recent meetings, with consultant Sam Ward advising the court at its February meeting that it likely will cost several million dollars to erect new towers throughout the county. The upgrade also would include new radios for the Carroll County Sheriff’s Office.

Deaton noted that there were some equipment-related issues with the county’s 911 and central dispatch system last week.

“We’re getting interference from different places and the equipment we’ve got now, if it goes down, we’re pretty much dead in the water,” Deaton said.

Later, he said: “The only answer is money.”

District 11 JP John Howerton asked about the procedure that would be necessary to place a proposed sales tax on the ballot for voters and County Judge Sam Barr referred to a millage that was approved by voters in the November 2016 general election to finance the operations of the Eastern Carroll County Ambulance District.

“On the ambulance tax, you all voted to put it on the ballot,” Barr said.

“That was a millage,” Howerton said. “Is it any different, do you know?”

“Not that I know of,” Barr said, before posing the question to Deputy Prosecuting Attorney Thomas Allgood.

“I believe it would be the same as the millage,” Allgood said. “You guys would have to vote on it and then it would go before the people for them to approve or disapprove.”

Allgood said he would research the matter further.

District 6 JP Craig Hicks, a Berryville police officer, confirmed that there was a period of about 20 minutes where dispatchers weren’t able to communicate with officers.

“We could speak to them. They couldn’t speak back to us,” Hicks said.

District 2 JP Chuck Olson asked Deaton when he would like to see a public vote on the issue.

“Yesterday,” Deaton replied. “It needs to be done this year, because it could go down tomorrow. This is not like anything else the county’s got. Say one of the sheriff’s cars broke down, he’s got another car. If this system goes down, we don’t have anything.”

A special election likely would be necessary to decide the issue this year. In the past, the costs for a special election have been relatively high, although that might be mitigated now that the county has instituted voting centers that have allowed for the consolidation of several polling sites.

The quorum court’s next regular meeting is scheduled for 5 p.m. Monday, April 15, in the courtroom of the Eastern District Courthouse in Berryville.

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