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Today's election easy to overlook

Many Jackson County residents were probably surprised to receive a ballot in the mail for today’s election. This is an off year for Oregon’s election calendar, and there is only one item on the ballot. It’s also not a very exciting one, but it’s important.

New radio equipment for the county 911 emergency dispatch center sounds like a routine budget matter that should be handled by some government body somewhere, using money already on hand. But it’s more complicated than that.

The money needed is $28 million. That’s a lot, especially for the fire districts and city police departments that rely on emergency communications to do their jobs. But spread over the entire county, it would cost the owner of an average home only $27 a year, or $2.25 a month.

Some residents, including those who write letters to this newspaper, have asked why Jackson County doesn’t use its reserve funds to pay for the needed equipment. If the county can offer $66 million toward the construction of a new jail, why not spend it on radio equipment first, they ask.

The biggest reason is that the county is just one of many entities that uses the dispatch center — and only for the Sheriff’s Office. The center serves two dozen fire and police departments, Southern Oregon University, the Oregon Department of Forestry, U.S. Forest Service, Bureau of Land Management and Crater Lake National Park.

Yes, those entities contribute to the operating expenses of the dispatch center — more than 80% of the cost, in fact. The rest is covered by a 911 tax on phone bills.

But those agencies don’t have the money to pay for completely overhauling the radio equipment.

It would hardly be fair for the county to pick up the entire cost out of its reserves when it uses only a fraction of the service.

The upgrade is needed because the old equipment has outlived its usefulness, and technicians can’t even find parts for it without searching eBay and Craigslist. What’s more, the analog equipment isn’t up to current standards, and police agencies that have converted to digital equipment have to have their signals converted to speak to dispatchers.

The system also has coverage gaps, and multiple repeaters operating on different frequencies that require officers to search for the best signal rather than connecting automatically. And the system’s age and condition means it could fail at any moment.

Some voters will be unconvinced and vote no. That’s their right. What’s important is for everyone to cast a ballot. Otherwise, this issue will be decided by a relatively small number of voters.

It’s too late to mail your ballot, which must be received in the Elections Department by 8 tonight. Postmarks do not count. So if you didn’t mail yours in, take it to one of the drop boxes: At public libraries in Rogue River, Eagle Point, Central Point, Phoenix and Ashland, or at the county Elections Department at 1101 W. Main St. in Medford.