03/20/08 — Communications system is in need of tax money, Smith says

View Archive

Communications system is in need of tax money, Smith says

By Matthew Whittle
Published in News on March 20, 2008 1:47 PM

Faced with an aging county communications system, the Wayne County Board of Commissioners decided two years ago to begin replacing it.

"We literally have been duct taping our communication system together for years. It's 40 years old," Wayne County Manager Lee Smith said. "We have to hunt parts for it, and we can't do that anymore."

Unfortunately, though, he explained, when state legislators took the collection and spending of the emergency 911 telephone surcharges away from local government control last year, they also took away the project's funding source.

So, he continued, it was fortuitous when the General Assembly then offered the counties the ability to enact a local option sales tax as part of its Medicaid relief package.

It's an option that will be put before Wayne County voters on May 6.

"What I'm proposing is that the proceeds from the quarter-cent sales tax for the next four to five years be solely utilized to pay for this system," Smith said.

One tower for the system has already been built in Goldsboro, and two more are scheduled to go up this year in Mount Olive and Grantham. Those will be paid for with approximately $1.5 million in cash reserves. The rest of the system, including the purchase and installment of more than 1,500 radios, is expected to cost about $8 million to $8.5 million.

The quarter-cent sales tax is expected to bring in between $1.8 million and $2.4 million per year -- "depending on the economy," Smith said.

And even though they can't earmark the funds until they've been approved by voters, the commissioners concurred Tuesday that using them for the communications systems is a good idea.

"We're promoting safety and security and at a time like this, I think that's the most important thing to do," Commissioner J.D. Evans said.

The system, which county telecommunications supervisor Delbert Edwards explained is a VHF P25 Digital Trunking System, is supposed to be state of the art.

"We're going to buy quality," Smith said. "We're going to buy the best equipment with the money we have. This system touches everybody in Wayne County."

It's the same kind of system as is being used at the U.S. Army's Fort Dietrich in Frederick, Md. -- where county officials got to see it in action several weeks ago.

"We saw it in operation and everyone was pleased with it," Edwards said. "The cornerstone of this system is that is provides a 95/95 coverage."

That means it provides coverage in 95 percent of the county, 95 percent of the time -- even with portable radios.

"That is a serious life safety issue for responders," he said.

Edwards and Smith also believe that for the county's purposes, this system is superior to the VIPER system being utilized by the state Highway Patrol because it allows the county to integrate its current pager notification system into it, while still allowing for interoperability with other counties, as well as state, federal and Seymour Johnson Air Force Base officials.

It also will give sheriff deputies and municipal police officers more reliable wireless Internet access in their cars for background checks and other needs, instead of requiring them to call back to the dispatch center for help.

Another added benefit is that it's non-proprietary, meaning that any manufacturer's equipment can attach to it, allowing for a more competitive and thus less expensive bidding process. But most important, Smith said, because he's looking to use the county sales tax funds, he's planning to purchase and install the equipment not only for all the county's emergency responders, but also for all the fire departments and municipal responders, as well as for possible expansions to the Red Cross for their emergency shelters and to schools and school bus drivers.

"The sales tax is a countywide tax. We're all paying for this," he said. "And my thought is if they're paying it, there should be no paybacks," he said. But, he emphasized, this whole plan is contingent upon the sales tax being approved in May.

"The only backup you have is existing revenues -- existing sales tax and existing property tax," Smith said. "And I don't want to have to use those.

"If you want to do this in the next two to three years it would take a property tax increase of two to three cents."