In Oregon, Budgeting and Politics for a Proposed Interoperable Radio System

$665 million system touted as being able to allow all first responders to communicate

State Trooper Andy Moyer patrols parts of Columbia and Multnomah counties from his post in St. Helens. When a drunken driver left a Washington County hit-and-run and headed north toward Moyer last year, the trooper missed his chance to quickly intercept the driver --because his radio doesn't "hear" Washington County calls. Moyer's state radio doesn't "hear" Multnomah County calls, either.

"I could be right around the corner from a shootout, and I would never know it," he says.

The state audit also warned of dire consequences in the event of an earthquake, tsunami or other catastrophe.

Still, Oregonians won't spend limitless amounts of money on a state-of-the-art network without evidence that it's worth the price, says Lindsay Ball, head of Oregon's Department of Administrative Services, which oversees state operations.

He was recently given oversight of the plan and wants more study. Ball is hiring an analyst to produce cost breakdowns, and said he might delay requesting construction money until 2008:

"We have to have more detailed planning: This is what it will cost, this is the benefit you will derive. We can't say, 'Legislature, give me $665 million and let's call it a day.' "

Architects of Oregon's plan say three factors explain the big price tag:

* They want to cover every section of the state, not just heavily populated areas. Roughly two-thirds of the money would be spent to cover sparsely populated parts of Eastern and Southern Oregon. Utah's interoperable radio network, by contrast, covers 85 percent of its population --but only about a third of its state's geography.

* They must replace Oregon's outdated radio towers and equipment. Some states can put new equipment on existing towers or turn to a robust state fiber network. Oregon can't.

* Oregon has challenging geography. It has the nation's ninth-largest land mass, and the rugged Coast Range requires far more towers and transmitters than a flat area the same size.

Other factors are at play as well: Oregon is choosing more expensive technology, and the state plan includes equipment and capabilities for local responders to use the network.

John Powell, Western regional coordinator for the Department of Homeland Security, predicts the state's cost will fall below $665 million if federal and local agencies contribute land, towers, equipment and money.

So far, Oregon's high-priced plan has drawn little public notice or scrutiny.

The governor, for instance, talked up his plans to devote more money to buildings at Oregon universities than ever before --some $590 million worth. But he did not call attention to his plans to spend $588 million building the new radio network and an additional $77 million operating it as it comes on line.

Public safety officials, led by Tualatin Valley Fire & Rescue Chief Jeff Johnson, are emphatic that the new system would improve public safety.

They concede that "interoperability" hasn't become a household buzzword --even though the inability of New York City police and firefighters to communicate on Sept. 11, 2001, awoke the nation to the problem.

From small-town police departments to big-city fire departments to the state forestry department, all Oregon public safety agencies are prepared to lobby hard for the new system.

"If we have to replace our radio systems --and we do," Johnson says, "why not do this the right way?"