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New Iowa Emergency Comm Center Price Tag Rises

CEDAR RAPIDS, Iowa -- Johnson County, Iowa, property owners probably will pay much more than first expected for a new $18.3 million countywide emergency communications center.

The extra money would allow for more radio towers to provide broader coverage, especially in rural areas, project planners said at a Board of Supervisors work session Wednesday.

"Our objective has always been to improve the communications throughout the county," said Iowa City Mayor Regenia Bailey, chairwoman of the Johnson County Council of Governments' Urbanized Area Policy Board, a countywide planning organization.

The supervisors were asked to approve a new tax of 77 cents per $1,000 of taxable value for the year that begins July 1 to help pay for the center. That would amount to $77 for land valued at $100,000 before factoring in the state rollback.

In October, the supervisors were told the tax likely would range from 43 cents to 63 cents per $1,000. The higher levy would generate an extra $1.2 million in the first year alone.

The tax will not be set until the board approves a fiscal 2009 budget later this winter.

The extra radio towers and higher-than-expected construction and equipment costs have dramatically increased the project's estimated price tag, which had an initial estimate of $8.3 million, said Jeff Davidson, a former JCCOG executive director and now Iowa City's director of planning and community development. He stressed that number could change again. Also, an additional $1.6 million annually is needed to operate the center.

The center, to open in summer 2009, would serve all Johnson County public safety departments and emergency medical personnel. The county has two primary communications systems now -- one run by Iowa City and one by the county. Communication between the systems is limited and radio coverage spotty.

The center was to go next to the Iowa City water treatment plant north of Interstate 80, but possible interference with nearby radio stations KXIC and KKRQ has planners looking at county-owned land near the Highway 218-Melrose Avenue intersection. Widespread support exists among local governments for the center, which will be run by an executive director and a board made up of representatives from Johnson County, Iowa City, Coralville and North Liberty. Still, some supervisors were surprised that the proposed levy camein so high. They would set the levy, meaning they would be the primary target for upset taxpayers.

Supervisor Terrence Neuzil also expressed concern about possible side effects such a high tax could have on funding for county projects.

Davidson said the proposed levy was a "worst-case" scenario and could be lowered the following fiscal year. He also noted that rural areas and the Johnson County Sheriff's Office would benefit the most from broader radio coverage.

All the supervisors pledged continued support for the project, and it seems likely the levy will be approved at or near the recommended level.

"I think we have to remember that, sometimes, doing the best for the taxpayer is spending money," supervisors Chairman Rod Sullivan said.

Contact the writer: (319) 339-3175 or gregg.hennigan@gazettecommunications.com

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