05/19/08 — It's back to the drawing board for communications system funding

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It's back to the drawing board for communications system funding

By Steve Herring
Published in News on May 19, 2008 1:48 PM

Wayne County commissioners could soon be lobbying state lawmakers to take another look at recent legislation that limits how a county can utilize revenues from the 911 emergency telephone surcharge.

That option is expected to top the list Tuesday as commissioners continue to search for ways to maintain the county's momentum to replace its aging emergency communications system.

County Manager Lee Smith, who is expected to make that suggestion to commissioners at their Tuesday session, said a recommendation as to how to proceed could come within the next 90 to 120 days.

One factor that is complicating the process is that the county is in the midst of budget preparations, he said.

County officials had been hopeful the approximately $2 million annually would be available for the project through a one-quarter cent increase in the local sales tax. Those expectations were crushed in this month's primary when 82 percent of those voting said "no" to the proposal.

"I will ask commissioners to look at asking the General Assembly to reexamine the 911 surcharge and allow us to use it for the communications," Smith said.

Smith said he is also asking county residents to call and lobby legislators and demand the law be changed.

The county could pay cash for the estimated $10 million cost for the system, Smith said. However, obligating so much of the county's reserve is not practical in today's uncertain economic climate and at time when the county is already committed to providing additional funding for school facilities, Smith said.

Smith said he did not anticipate asking commissioners to put the sales tax issue on the November ballot. Doing so, he said, would be a "waste of time."

"I think the voters spoke and said they wanted us to use existing money," he said.

Smith said that prior to the state's action his goal had been to use revenues from the 911 surcharge fees to build a "debt reserve." The county could have drawn on such a reserve to help pay for the communications system.

But that is no longer possible. Those revenues now can be used only for the telephones, database, computers and maintenance of the lines. They cannot be used to purchase radios.

Smith said he understands the General Assembly might look at the surcharge usage within the next 24 months. But he is hopeful the lobbying effort can get under way much sooner.

The county does have some funds generated by the surcharge that could be used. Prior to the legislative change, Smith had transferred $1 million to a different budget line item. That will allow the county to build two radio towers -- one in Mount Olive and one in Grantham. A third already has been built near the old Wayne Community College campus on U.S. 70.

Once the towers are completed, the county could generate some revenue by selling space on them to cell phone companies, Smith said.

The two towers will cost about $1.5 million. The rest of the proposed system, including nearly 16,000 radios, buildings to house the equipment, computers and other "backroom equipment" will cost about $8.5 million.

Smith said the towers could provide wireless Internet service for county use or allow portable radios in school buses instead of cell phones. Smith said radios would allow for better and faster communications in the event of an accident.

And having more than one tower will provide a back up so that if one tower fails the others kick in.

Efforts to keep the radio system on track won't stop with legislators.

As a "fallback," Smith said he will continue to look at existing revenues and finances and a possible mix of reserve fund dollars and loans.

The county seems to have settled on a the VHF P25 Digital Trunking system, though there are some in the community who would like to see it move toward the state's 800-MHz VIPER system that is used primarily by the Highway Patrol.

County officials recently visited the U.S. Army's Fort Dietrich in Frederick, Md., to see the VHF P25 Digital Trunking system in action.

Smith said much had been made of those two options but there are actually a multitude of systems to choose from.

One issue that been a driving force in the final decision has been local control, Smith said.

For example, if a major disaster like a hurricane was to strike the coast then the state would rightly concentrate its resources on that area, he said.

Smith said the county stands ready to assist its neighboring counties.

"But when it comes to Wayne County, we have got to look after our folks," he said.

The VIPER system is attractive since the state would foot the cost of building the towers including one in Goldsboro. But even then the system wouldn't be free because the county would sill have to purchase the radios and backroom equipment, Smith said.

The radios for the VIPER would cost between $4 million and $5 million. The county would also have to purchase new 911 center equipment.

Emergency Management Director Joe Gurley has estimated that could mean the cost of the system could be about 40 percent higher. Also, he said the county might find a less-competitve bidding process because of the smaller number of vendors.

Smith said the county is also concerned about being able to page emergency personnel. Two systems would still be needed to offer the radio coverage and paging.

The 95/95 coverage is also important, he said. That means that the system reaches 95 percent of the county 95 percent of the time. He said the VIPER system did not appear to penetrate buildings as well as the other system.

Having the best communication as possible is vital to the people who are putting their lives on the line -- firefighters, rescue workers and law enforcement, he said.

That is why low-power portable radios are so important, he said.

The radios would allow emergency personnel to call the communications center without having to return to their vehicles.

Smith said the county hopes to be able to buy the radios in bulk as a way to save money.

The county's plan calls for purchasing radios for all fire departments, rescue squads and law enforcement agencies in the county.

Smith said forcing fire departments to purchase their own radios would be "taxing" for some of the smaller rural departments that are already taking hits because of skyrocketing diesel fuel costs.

He had recommended the system be phased in. However, after speaking with officials in other counties, he now feels making the change all at once if possible is preferable. A phase-in might run into problems later on as other issues crop up that make demands on county funds.

The VIPER system is being touted by the state for being open to all emergency response agencies and is in use in surrounding areas.

Smith said there had been a "lot of talk" about the two systems not being able to "talk to each other." That is not correct since the two would be hardwired to each other, he said.

Smith added that it is important that the county ensures it is doing the right thing before purchasing a system. He has asked Gurley and communications supervisor Delbert Edwards to continue research into communications systems to ensure the county has the latest data available.