A bill to authorize a referendum on the increase, dubbed the “School Safety Act,” is in a draft phase, but could be introduced to the Legislature this spring, officials said. If approved as written it will be used to pay for the 800 MHz radio system, and for an uniformed law enforcement officer at each public school in both counties.
“In order to do this we’re going to have to pass a property tax and I know no one likes taxes,” said Oxford police Chief Bill Partridge at a Friday press conference. Partridge spoke from behind a lectern and about two dozen public safety officials from Talladega and Calhoun counties were lined up behind him.
Officials are drafting twin bills for each county in which they propose a 3.5-mill property tax increase that would apply to property owners. The additional mills would cost the owners of a home valued at $100,000 an extra $35 per year.
Officials at the conference said a 3.5-mill increase would generate roughly $7 million in revenue annually. Of that about $3.9 million would be used to shore up the communication’s system, $2.5 million would be used to pay school resource officers and about $700,000 would be allocated to the Calhoun and Talladega county commissions for public safety, said Kevin Jenkins, who heads the board that administers the radio system.
The bill must go through several steps, including a constitutional amendment for a special election to become law. That election could be held as early as June, officials said.
The need for a computer upgrade to the communication system — as well as the recent events in Dale County and the school massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut — served as a two-fold impetus for the bill, Jenkins said.
He said the system is unique because it is used by school bus drivers, police officers and firefighters, and he added that it gives first-responders and school officials a seamless line of communication.
“When Newtown happened we realized the the importance of that capability and school resource officers,” Jenkins said.
The radio system, which will receive the bulk of the funds, is used by public safety agencies and public schools in both counties. It is the largest in the state and has become an important part of school communication, according to one top school administrator in Calhoun County.
“Those are an integral part of what we do in terms of busing,” said Oxford schools Superintendent Jeff Goodwin. “We support any increase that keeps our students safe.”
Currently Oxford has two school resource officers, one at the high school and another at the middle school. If the bill is approved, Oxford schools, and all other public schools in both counties, would have a designated school resource officer on campus.
Calhoun County Sheriff Larry Amerson added that school resource officers, who are armed, might be able to deter or prevent mass shootings.
“It’s a sad reality, but schools have become a target,” Amerson said.
Amerson added that a school resource officer becomes a part of a school campus’ community. That person develops relationships with students and is able to help teachers and administrators manage unruly parents and students.
Talladega police Chief Alan Watson said the bill would greatly improve school safety in his county. He said between three school systems in his county, there are just three school resource officers.
The two counties are joining on the project because they’ve both become dependent on the 800 MHz system since setting it up in 1996 and 1997. It was installed to prepare for emergencies that could have occurred if chemical weapons leaked from the Anniston Chemical Agent Disposal Facility.
The radio system was funded until last year by the federal government through the Chemical Stockpile Preparedness Program in Calhoun and Talladega counties. When the program ended last year, local officials formed a board to help manage the system and began charging public agencies user fees for each device in April.
The fees were designed to sustain the system with local funding.
The payment change was needed, officials said, to pay for an upgrade to the radio system and to continue operating the radios for years to come.
The software and hardware upgrades needed to sustain the system would cost roughly $4 million, Calhoun County Administrator Ken Joiner said. But, he added, if officials don’t replace it now the cost of the upgrades could increase to $7 million in a matter of months.
That expense is too much for the individual departments to cover with the current user fee, which is $22.50. If the bill is approved, the revenue it generates will replace the user fee, officials said.
Without the radio system first responders and school officials would “lose complete communication and the ability to respond to emergencies,” Joiner said.
If the bill fails, officials will have to revamp and some agencies would go back to the old disjointed radio communication system, Joiner said. That could slow communication between first responders during emergencies when seconds count.
“It behooves everybody to stay together,” Joiner said.
Staff writer Laura Johnson: 256-235-3544. On Twitter @LJohnson_Star.