Alachua County has given Gainesville a three-month deadline to sell its trunked radio system, but city officials say the timing of a potential sale will hinge on interpretation of the city’s code.
At the Alachua County Board of County Commissioners (BOCC) meeting on Tuesday, the commission passed a motion that asks for an agreement to move forward on sale of the emergency radio system by Feb. 14.
Without the agreement, Alachua County is prepared to build its own system. County Manager Michele Lieberman said a new system will cost around $14 million to $16 million.
County staff entered talks with Gainesville Regional Utilities (GRU) in 2021 about the system, and Alachua County Fire Rescue Chief Harold Theus told the BOCC at its meeting that the groups met three times that year.
The BOCC sent a chair letter to Gainesville in January 2022 about the possibility of a purchase, but Theus said GRU waited for a study of the system before engaging. With the study finished, Theus said the dialogue has picked up.
Tony Cunningham, interim general manager for GRU, told the BOCC that he and the city manager were on the same page and willing to discuss a sale. He cautioned that the city will swear in three new commissioners on Jan. 5 and it could take some time to catch them up on the issue.
Gainesville’s code also contains a provision that would need to be cleared. The charter amendment, passed by the public in 2020, requires a ballot measure before the city can dispose parts of the utility “so as to materially reduce the capacity of that system to produce, distribute or treat. . .[the telecommunications system].” Find the full code section here.
In an interview on Thursday, Mayor-elect Harvey Ward said the sale of the trunked radio system might not fall within that provision requiring a public vote. He said city attorneys will determine the final answer, but he thinks a sale can happen outside that provision.
Still, he said the Feb. 14 deadline would still be tight if the city commission decides to sell.
“I am grateful we have at least a little breathing room on it,” Ward said. “I was afraid they were going to make decisions this week, which would have meant that his very first meeting for three brand new commissioners, they would have had to work with that.”
Ward said that the city bond covenants on the system might be the snag, rather than the Gainesville code. If the city can work around both, then GRU might sell the system. Ward said that decision will come down to what the city thinks is best for its citizens.
“I'm willing to entertain the concept,” Ward said. “I'm absolutely not shutting it out. It may be the best deal for us. It may not.”
The key will be the details of the agreement and the long-term cost to the city, he said.
Currently, GRU has millions in debt service on the emergency radio system. Cunningham told the BOCC that the exact number depends on how the debt is calculated, but it falls around $11 million.
BOCC Commissioner Ken Cornell said he thought the debt would be $5.5 million, while Chair Anna Prizzia said she had been told $8 million.
County commissioners said the conversation had lasted for too long waiting for the city to act.
“I understand the comradery across the street and all of that stuff, but at some point, we just have to move forward and to stop playing games,” BOCC Commissioner Charles Chestnut said at the meeting. “It just feels like a game to me; if it were serious, we’d have had this done.”
Chestnut was also the lone dissent in the BOCC vote to wait until Feb. 14 for an agreement.
Alachua County is a customer of GRU’s radio system, and if a sale goes through, the roles will reverse, with GRU becoming the county’s customer.
Last year GRU sent a letter threatening to terminate access to the system if the county did not pay a $1.6 million bill.
GRU has numerous other clients, including Santa Fe College, UF, emergency services and smaller municipalities like High Springs, Newberry and Alachua. The system allows these clients to communicate without interfering with each other's messaging.
Theus told the BOCC that building its own system will take between 24 and 48 months. In a phone interview, Theus said “that’s a path we don’t want to go down,” but the county would do it if it had to.
“The city of Gainesville and GRU are understandably focused on the city of Gainesville, but there are a lot of agencies outside of the city limits that rely on the public radio notification system,” he said. “We really can't be beholden to just one city or municipality in the county.”
Theus said GRU has done an “fantastic job of owning and operating the system,” but the county believes it can do the job for less, saving both taxpayers and outlying city governments money. He said the county wants to extend service to the Alachua County School Board and add towers that are needed due to population growth.
The BOCC and Gainesville City Commission are scheduled for a joint meeting on Jan. 23.
—With reporting by J.C. Derrick