January 28, 2011


County puts off communications upgrade

Concerns about financing for $15 million project delay approval until Feb. 15

Staff Reporter

One by one Thursday night, Cortland County legislators listened as police officers and firefighters described problems with their emergency communications.
Police officers told of their inability to call for backup during crisis calls. EMTs spoke of patients nearly dying because the county’s current emergency communications system is not adequate. Firefighters told of the risks of their job being compounded by faulty radio coverage.
Despite pleas to upgrade the system, county legislators voted 10-9 on Thursday to table six resolutions associated with a $14.8 million project to revamp the system.
The county would bond for the work.
Funding the bond payments annually is expected to increase the tax levy by about 5 percent.
Legislators Richard Bushnell (D-5th Ward), Larry Cornell (R-Marathon and Lapeer), Jennifer Gofkowski (D-Homer), Tom Hartnett (D-4th Ward), Sandy Price (D-Harford and Virgil), Danny Ross (R-Cortlandville), John Steger (Preble and Scott), John Troy (D-1st Ward) and Gene Waldbauer (R-Cortlandville), were opposed.
The Legislature scheduled a special session Feb. 15 to decide the matter.
Lawmakers said after the meeting they want more time to decide how they will ultimately finance the approximately $1.4 million annual debt payment that would carry for 15 years over the life of the bond.
The county would contract with Motorola for the work, which would entail building five radio towers at sites throughout the county and upgrading all radio equipment. Four existing tower sites would be used as well.
The work would be completed in 2012 to comply with a Federal Communications Commission mandate that municipalities move to narrowband radio frequencies by Jan. 1, 2013.
The move would also allow emergency responders to communicate with one another, a situation which currently does not exist.
The upgrade would vastly improve the coverage area, bringing it to 95 percent of the county, up from the 50 percent existing now. Legislators who voted in favor of tabling the plan seemed decided on ultimately passing it in two weeks.
The move to delay the upgrade puzzled many in the large crowd of fire, police and medical personnel who attended the session to speak in favor of the upgrade. Doug VanEtten, a fireman and deputy coordinator for the county’s fire and emergency management office and one of about 15 emergency responders who spoke at the meeting, said he was disappointed legislators put off the vote.
“I hope legislators who are looking for information to make a decision will feel free to reach out to their emergency providers, if there is lack of information we would be happy to answer any questions they may have,” VanEtten said.
Without the upgrade, VanEtten said firefighters, policemen and EMTs will continue to operate under both unsafe and inefficient conditions.
Emergency responders currently operate on different frequencies that cannot communicate with one another. The upgrade would correct the problem.
Options for lowering the cost of bonding for all the work include leasing the equipment from Motorola. This would bring the annual debt payment down to $230,000 and the annual lease payment would be about $1.07 million, for a total annual debt load of about $1.3 million.
Other options for lowering costs include seeking grant funds, applying revenues generated from increased landline and wireless telephone charges, and applying revenues from the solid waste fund.
Many legislators said they want the extra time to determine how they can maximize the revenue at the landfill, a challenge that is being studied by the county.
Legislature Chairman Jack Williams (D-8th Ward) said legislators must figure out how to bring in $650,000 in landfill revenue to make it break even so that taxpayers do not have to bear that extra burden on their tax bill while paying for the communications upgrade.
“I want to try to get it down so that we are only playing with a couple of points (on the tax levy),” said Williams, adding he will try to field suggestions from the county Highway Department personnel about what to do with the landfill.
Troy said he was ready to approve the plan Thursday. He thinks the Legislature knows it is something the county needs to do.
“I think we should have dealt with it tonight and we should have given an explanation why (we tabled it),” Troy said.
Ray Parker (D-2nd Ward) said he supports the project but he wanted more time to find ways of maximizing nonproperty tax funding.


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