09/18/08 — County OKs $9.7 million for emergency communication system

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County OKs $9.7 million for emergency communication system

By Steve Herring
Published in News on September 18, 2008 1:38 PM

Wayne County commissioners Tuesday unanimously agreed to a $9.7 million loan to finance construction of a new countywide emergency communications system.

The approval followed a brief public hearing during which one resident said the county needs tax relief, not a radio system. He was followed by a line of firefighters who said the overdue system is a matter of safety for the public as well as emergency personnel.

The high-frequency radio system includes the purchase of between 1,500 to 1,600 radios, two towers -- one to be built in Mount Olive and the other in Grantham -- and buildings to house the equipment, computers and other "backroom equipment."

County Manager Lee Smith said that 80 to 90 percent of the project bids could be "piggybacked" on existing bids for radios and related equipment since most will be on state contract.

Some bids could be awarded as early as November or December, with the bulk of the work under way by spring.

Tuesday's hearing was required by the state before the county could enter into any installment financing agreement. The next step is approval of the financing application by the Local Government Commission. The application already is on file with the commission.

The county hired Davenport & Company, a Richmond, Va.-based investment company, to draft, distribute and receive bids from financial institutions interested in financing the project.

Commissioners approved a recommendation by the county's financial offices to award the financing bid to RBC Bank. The 10-year financing package carries a fixed interest rate of 3.38 percent, the lowest of the four proposals received.

The loan may be repaid at any time in whole or in part with a 1 percent premium.

Smith said there has been conversation about paying some cash on the project. However, that is not feasible because of the county's commitment to $23 million for school construction and concerns about uncertain economic conditions.

Should the economy improve, the county could pay down on the loan, he added.

During the briefing session prior to the board meeting, commission Chairman Bud Gray asked Smith if there was any chance the state would allow 911 emergency surcharge fees to be used on the project.

Smith said he did not think so. He said the telephone companies are using the revenues to improve their cell towers. Smith said the county needs to lobby legislators about the 911 revenues.

The county will buy radios for all emergency services and law enforcement agencies in the county, including those in the municipalities. The number of radios per fire department will be based on the number of trucks each department has. Departments that want more radios can buy them and use the discount that the county expects to receive by buying in bulk.

The radios carry a one-year warranty. After that time, each agency will be responsible for maintenance and upkeep of the units, Smith said. He said there has been some discussion about a maintenance contract -- something to be considered in the spring.

"We do not need it," Jim Barnwell said during the public hearing. "We need tax relief in this county."

Barnwell said voters had turned the proposal down in May. He said the money should be used for schools.

Commissioner Efton Sager noted that what voters had turned down was a one-quarter-cent increase in the state sales tax. Proceeds from the tax had been earmarked for the radio system.

"There is no doubt the schools need the money, but public safety is important. We can't afford to shortchange it," he said.

"The proposal before you is the best system for the county," said Norman Pendergraft, chief of the Rosewood Fire Department. "Tax money can be spent for a good purpose. We need this for fire departments to function."

Pendergraft said departments are using equipment they have used for many years.

Larry Pearce, deputy chief of the Belfast Fire Department, said the county is in "dire need" of the system.

Pearce said communications are not good in outlying sections of the county.

Wayne County Firemen's Association President Kirk Barnette said it was "time to move" on the system.