The Blue Mountain Translator District, which transmits over-the-air television signals to local viewers, may soon have new tools to help it attain greater financial stability and provide emergency alerts.
Sen. Cliff Bentz, R-Ontario, is set to introduce three bills during the 2019 legislative session that begins Jan. 22. The proposed legislation addresses the needs of translator districts that provide over-the-air television signals in Oregon, said Alex McHaddad, secretary/treasurer of the BMTD.
“We will be making our biggest legislative push in the past 20 years,” McHaddad said of the BMTD, which provides television signals for viewers in Union County and part of Baker County.
The proposed legislation, Senate Bills 393 and 394, plus a bill yet to be assigned a number by the state, would impact only the Blue Mountain Translator District, McHaddad said, for it is the only translator district in Oregon.
Senate Bill 394 would enable the BMTD to send emergency alerts to warn viewers of hazards such as bad weather, wildfires and chemical spills. SB 394 would make emergency alerts possible by providing the BMTD the authority to use the technology needed to broadcast them.
McHaddad has made many presentations to city councils and fire districts throughout Union and Baker counties about adding an emergency alert system, and many have expressed support for it.
“It is getting the most traction,” he said.
The BMTD secretary/treasurer said if SB 394 is approved, district officials would then consider a number of options for displaying emergency alerts. These would include running scrolls on the bottom of the channels it carries or creating a public service channel where alerts could be announced.
“We would determine which would be the most cost effective and provide the most benefit,” McHaddad said.
Tim Wallender, president of the BMTD’s board of directors, is an enthusiastic supporter of adding an emergency alert system.
“I am excited about it,” Wallender said. “It will be all local.”
He said the BMTD would work closely with emergency services officials in Union and Baker counties when determining how emergency alerts would be issued. Wallender said the support the proposal is receiving from city councils, fire districts and other agencies will help SB 394’s chances of being approved by the Legislature.
The support will impress Bentz, who “wants to know that all of the agencies are behind it,” Wallender said.
A second piece of proposed legislation, SB 393, would make it easier for the Blue Mountain Translator District, which provides about 24 channels, to get more people to pay the $100 annual fee every homeowner using over-the-air TV service is supposed to pay.
Presently, the BMTD sends a service charge letter to every household in its district outside an incorporated city. If homeowners do not respond to the service charge letter by paying the $100 fee or indicating they do not use the BMTD’s service, a lien is placed on their property by the Union or Baker county assessor’s office.
McHaddad said $45,000 of its annual revenue comes from residents who pay their annual service charge and $40,000 from liens on the property of BTMD service users.
The BMTD cannot send service charge letters to homeowners in incorporated cities unless they have antennas that can be seen from the street. SB 393 would allow the BMTD to send service charge letters to all households in cities in its service area. This could be done only if cities were first annexed in the Blue Mountain Translator District. Currently only property in unincorporated areas is technically part of the BMTD.
McHaddad said passage of SB 393 would boost the BMTD’s efficiency by reducing the time staff spends finding homes with antennas in cities. The BMTD has just two paid positions.
McHaddad said he has counted 228 homes in Union County cities that have antennas: 122 in La Grande, 47 in Union, 22 in Elgin, 15 in Island City, 11 in Summerville and 11 in Imbler.
The third proposed piece of legislation would change the way the BMTD receives funding. The bill would make it possible for the BMTD to levy property taxes on property owners living within its district instead of assessing service charges to users. The tax rates would have to be approved by voters living within the district area.
McHaddad said there is an increasing need to change the way the BMTD is funded in the future because of progressing technology. He explained that some people are now able to watch TV programs from BMTD signals on handheld smartphone-type devices using antennas that are only a few inches long.
Wallender said this means that it is impossible to keep track of how many people are using BMTD television signals.
“We need to be equitable and have a level playing field. Some are paying for the service and others are stealing service,” said Wallender, one of three members of the BMTD board along with April Simpson of Summerville and Christina Wood of Baker City.
The Blue Mountain Translator District, founded in 1978, has broadcast towers on Mt. Fanny and Mt. Harris in Union County and Beaver Mountain in Baker County. It carries programing from ABC, CBS, NBC and Fox from stations in Portland and Boise, Idaho.
Wallender stressed it is important for Union and Baker county residents to understand that antenna television isn’t “free” in this area. He said television is free only if you live within reach of the main broadcast stations in larger cities. The process of getting antenna television to Eastern Oregon so it can be rebroadcast here, Wallender said, is costly.