PAOLA — Miami County commissioners made it clear that when it comes to public safety, having reliable communications is essential.
Commissioners voted 5-0 Wednesday, Oct. 30, to purchase an 800 megahertz radio system from Motorola to replace a dysfunctional VHF radio system that has caused nothing but headaches for dispatchers and first responders across the county. The cost of the system, site development for the towers and a $500,000 contingency reserve brings the total to about $8 million.
The county intends to use general obligation bonds to finance between $5 million to $6 million of the project. The balance would be paid out of the county’s cash reserves. The total amount to be financed has not yet been determined. The commission will receive a financial report in about two weeks and then discuss how much to spend in cash reserves without putting the county at financial risk.
“We owe it to the taxpayer to use some of our reserves,” Commissioner George Pretz said in a study session before the meeting.
The condition of the VHF system had deteriorated to the point where the County Commission declared a state of emergency Aug. 14 in order to seek immediate assistance from the state.
“I want to say thank you to law enforcement, to first responders across Miami County who have really been very patient with us,” Commissioner Rob Roberts said. “The moment that this commission understood the severity of the radio communication issues, we took action. We declared an emergency.”
County commissioners had already discussed plans to move to an 800 MHz system, and commissioned a study by Tusa Consulting Services in December 2018. Miami County Emergency Medical Services and the Paola Fire Department have already made the conversion to 800 MHz.
Motorola emerged as the frontrunner in those discussions.
“We went after finding the right firms to work with and authorized Tusa to go in to sole source negotiations with Motorola,” Roberts said.
Motorola will customize the 800 MHz system to meet the county’s needs and then build it from scratch, with the goal of staging and shipment by Dec. 18, according to a project report.
Similar transitions are taking place all across the country as part of a nationwide shift to digital broadcasting, and the need was amplified a few years ago when the Federal Communications Commission mandated narrow banding of the VHF system to make more bandwidth available for other uses.
Before the vote Oct. 30, Sheriff Frank Kelly spoke to the commission about the flaws in the VHF system and said efforts to repair the system were exhausted.
“We tried every avenue to fix the VHF system and it did not work,” Kelly said.
On behalf of his department, Kelly asked the commission to support the purchase of the 800 MHz system. Several deputies with the sheriff’s office and other first responders were in attendance.
“Gentleman you can’t put a price tag on first responders out there 24-7,” Kelly said to commissioners. “Their families depend on them to come home. And we ask for your support today to move forward. Communications is key in what we do every day. Our dispatchers are the hub for everything in our community. For our staff in the field, (the radio system) is a lifesaving tool just like our firearms. It’s safety for our staff.”
Commissioner Tyler Vaughan noted the system should have 95 percent coverage throughout the county which would be a dramatic improvement over VHF, which was spotty at best in some areas, especially the eastern part of the county including the city of Louisburg.
“Most importantly, it provides coverage inside a building,” Pretz said, referring to some buildings where radios do not function with the current VHF.
“This (800 MHz) system gives us the ability to function the way we would expect of the county between all of our departments and improve our public safety from where we were at before,” Vaughan said.
Commissioners Danny Gallagher and Phil Dixon joined the others in voicing their support for the 800 MHz system, both in the study session and regular meeting and thanked Tusa, Motorola and everyone who had a hand in this project.
“This is what I call a legacy solution that is going to bring us into the 21st century but also take us 50 years into the future,” Roberts said. “Bear in mind this project is going to take 16 to 18 months to complete, so this is step one. We realize it’s still a little longer down the road but we’ve got a good plan.”
The county’s financial advisor, Greg Vahrenberg with Raymond James Public Finance, told commissioners that when looking at all the financing options available, general obligation bonds offered the lowest borrowing cost for this project.
Vahrenberg said he would work with County Administrator Shane Krull, Finance Director Steve Lyman and the County Commission to evaluate different financing options, the dollar amount to be financed, the repayment period, how much cash is contributed and how all this would fit into the county’s budget.
He said the sale of the bonds probably would occur in early December with a close in mid-December. He estimated the locked-in interest rate would be in the 1 ¾ to 2 percent range on 10- to 12-year financing, if that’s the bond repayment plan the commission selects after evaluating the financial report.
“I think we’re fortunate in this county that we do not have a lot of long term debt in general obligation bonds and it let us do this,” Pretz said. “We are very well financially in the general obligation bond area.”
Vaughan told the audience a lot of deliberation went into this decision to purchase the 800 MHz system.
“This is a huge financial decision for the county and a decision on public safety, and I think we’re weighing both of those heavily together,” Vaughan said. “I do want to make it very clear that this was a difficult decision when it comes to understanding what we need to do for our officers and the safety of everybody and (maintain) the financial integrity of the county.”