GRUCom sends Alachua County $1.6M bill for emergency system use

Alachua County must pay the City of Gainesville $1.6 million to cover subscriber fees for the trunked radio system or lose access to the public communications system used by staff and emergency personnel.

At the special Alachua Board of County Commissioners (BOCC) meeting on Jan. 5th, the commission, county attorney and staff discussed the best response to the letter dated Jan. 4th issued by GRUCom Fiber Optic Communications.

The letter was addressed to County Manager Michele Lieberman and reads:

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“GRUCom, and the Alachua County Board of County Commissioners have operated under the terms of the Interlocal Agreement for the Trunked Radio System. That agreement expired September 30, 2020. GRUCom, as the service provider for the system, has developed subscriber fees which are explained in the attached terms and conditions. You will receive a bill from GRUCom in January, 2021 in the amount estimated to be $1,638,415.23. The exact amount will be included in your January 2021 bill. Under the attached terms, payment must be made within 45 days of the invoice.”

Lewis Walton, the chief business services officer for Gainesville Regional Utilities (GRU), signed the letter.

The email message that the letter was attached to addressed Public Safety Radio System Subscribers.

“Please see the attached Letter and Terms and Conditions that are effective immediately, your annual bill for service will be invoiced in January, 2021,” it reads.

“As you may know, GRUCom has been working with the Radio Management Board (RMB) and local governments for the past 5 years in anticipation of the expiration of the Interlocal Agreement on September 30, 2020 that governed the Public Safety Radio System. In 2018, at the request of participating agencies and local governments, GRUCom upgraded the system at a cost of $5 million without any price increases to the participating agencies. At the time, there was acknowledgement that these costs would have to be recovered upon the expiration of the interlocal agreement. On September 3, 2020 GRUCom management proposed general terms for a new agreement and worked with subscribers through several meetings to gain consensus. Although some progress was made in these discussions, a few facts remain…

· The original agreement has expired.

· Negotiations have not resulted in an agreement.

· The subscribers acknowledged and supported the need to pay the actual cost for GRUCom’s services.

· GRUCom should be paid the cost to provide the service.

“Therefore, GRUCom will bill each of the participating public safety radio system agencies this month, January 2021, for annual service in 2021. Please review the terms and conditions for important additional information.”

Lewis Walton also signed the email message.

The Trunked Radio System hosts both county, cities and unincorporated area communication technology and the County Communication Center (CCC) which dispatches emergency vehicles and personnel.

Alachua County Fire Rescue Chief Harold Theus presented an overview of the system to the BOCC and explained the history of attempts to negotiate a fair way to share the expense of the system, which includes the use of six towers. Three are in Gainesville and three are in unincorporated Alachua County.

Each tower has GRU equipment on them, Theus explained. To share the operating and servicing costs, the county has has an interlocal agreement. Overall, the county uses about 45 percent of the the talk time of the radio system and is billed accordingly, Theus said. In the past the cost of the $2.9 million system has been also been billed per radio.

As the population grows in Alachua County, the expansion of the system has been a topic of interest that has not been resolved. “A surtax was discussed,” Theus said about raising revenue for system expansion, but did not make it on the ballot.

The county currently pays $60,000 a month to GRUCom for use of the system, but commissioners discussed three ways to divide the cost in the future: 1) Pay the 45 percent of overall costs, 2) pay county and unincorporated areas’ share of 65 percent and bill it back to the users, or 3) the county could host 100 percent of the system and act as administrator of the GRUCom system, then bill users.

According to Theus, $1.1 million in use is attributed to the CCC, and half of that talk time is used by the City of Gainesville.

“Whatever data you give, the county uses 45 percent of the system,” Theus said.

BOCC chair Ken Cornell said he didn’t like the language of the letter, especially that GRUCom “shall” after 10 days notice terminate the subscriber’s use of the system.

The document reads: “Failure to Pay: If a subscriber fails to make any payment in full by the due date, GRUCom shall after providing ten (10) day notice, terminate the Subscribers access to the Radio System. Subscriber’s defaulted subscription fee will be included in the following year’s costs of the Radio System.”

“It bums me out that we got the letter,” Cornell said. “Public safety is one of the top priorities.”

The BOCC decided to send a letter to GRUCom asking to try to work out a plan before they move to the demands of the letter.

County Attorney Sylvia Torres recommended that the county approve of a resolution that would lead to a possible injunction of the action to terminate the county’s access to the communications system 10 days after the 45-day receipt of the invoice for $1,638,415.23.

The BOCC adopted a motion to initiate conflict resolution and also decided to send a letter to the City of Gainesville asking that they find a way to solve the issue instead of resorting to a demand for payment.

“The injunction is if GRU acts to shut them down,” Torres said about the radio system. “All we want [them] to do is hold the status quo until we can come to an agreement.”

Commissioner Mary Alford said what matters is, “Keeping the health and safety and welfare of the citizens at the forefront.”

Attorney Torres also said the county will continue to make the scheduled monthly $60,000 payment to GRUCom to show good faith while the situation is worked out.

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