As the deadline to renegotiate a radio contract between Alachua County and GRU approaches, the Board of County Commissioners will need to decide which avenue to take to upgrade an outdated system that has been in place since 1999.
“We are at the point in time where we really need to make some decisions on where we are going to move forward,” Alachua County Fire Rescue Chief Harold Theus told the BOCC at a regular meeting on April 14th.
“As the community has built out rurally, we continue to have areas where radio reception has difficulty,” Theus said. “The technology has become 20 years old and it is time to move forward with upgrading the system.
“We’ve been in situations before where we have had radio system problems, tower sites going down, significant storms coming through the area.
Theus’ goal: “To have a radio system that will take us out for the next 15 years that is going to be there in our times of need.”
Federal Engineering, a worldwide public safety communications consulting company, completed the study and came up with the $8 million price tag that Theus based his presentation to the BOCC on.
According to Theus, Alachua County entered into an agreement in 1999 with the City of Gainesville and GRU at a rate of $54.11 per communication device.
“Part of that $54.11 is paying debt off,” Theus said. “What we are proposing is to get out in front of that with an enhanced upgraded radio system.
A majority of the devices are used by the Alachua County Sheriff’s department and Gainesville Police department, Alachua and Gainesville Fire rescues and some are utilized by public safety, RTS, Public Works and Parks and Recreation employees.
GruCom recently spent $5 million to upgrade the current 6-site system, but Theus said there are still service area issues.
“We still have holes out in the unincorporated areas of Alachua County,” Theus said, adding that those areas include SW side in Archer, NW and southern portions of the county plus some issue inside “a lot of the buildings.”
The plan is to add four additional sites to bring the total number of sites to 10.
“It would enhance and provide the reliability we need,” Theus said. Existing sites would be enhanced and the plan would require utilizing water towers in Alachua and Archer, adding an additional radio tower in LaCrosse and leasing a radio tower in Newberry.
This would allow for backup systems as well. “The new system allows for microwave back calling if one system tower is not picking you up, another tower will automatically pick you up,” Theus said.
“This is something that we as an agency rely on heavily for public safety along with all of your law enforcement officers and your fire rescue personnel.”
The advancement in technology with the additional towers also includes being able to use GPS and AVL (automatic vehicle locator) for law enforcement plus adding Wi-Fi coverage on radio system and smartphone integration.
Theus said he met with city representatives on February 17 to discuss the system needs and there were “all were supportive.”
He then met with the school superintendent about including school buses on the radio system and sharing the cost.
“Each municipality goes to respective boards for funds,” Theus said.
Assistant County Manager for Budget & Fiscal Services Tommy Crosby then presented funding options to the BOCC and said his preference was to have an independent governance model that could approve budget items and make decisions.
The current contract with GRU is set at $640,000 and that goes until Sept. 30th, 2020, Crosby said.
If the county renegotiates a new contract, Crosby said that he expects the cost per device will triple.
Currently the county covers sheriff, fire rescue and ambulance service devices which the BOCC’s share would be $795,000 but if the user fee increases, that cost would rise to $1,004,000.
“If we could get the school board to share the cost, we would all know what to budget each year,” Crosby said and possible could lower the county portion if the UF police department came onboard as well.
One solution to funding the system upgrade recommendations it to borrow the $8 million and share the operational cost between the BOCC general fund, MSTU Law enforcement, MSBU Fire and traffic fines.
A second option would be to begin negotiations with the City of Gainesville and discuss a one-year half cent surtax to pay $13 million capital and share in operational costs annually.
“This option has a lot positives, but a negative timing,” Crosby said referring to the economic impact that the COVID-19 pandemic is having.
The third option is to negotiate a new contract with GRUCom with an expected tripling of the per device fee.
County Manager Michelle Lieberman suggested that the BOCC work with the City of Gainesville to negotiate an agreement with all applicable parties to ask for ability to move forward with a sales tax initiative with ability to back out in July if the parties changed plans.
“If we don’t advance it now as an option, the option will come off the table.”
Commission Chair Robert Hutchinson agreed that would be “prudent thing to do.”
Commissioner Mike Byerly said he supported funding the project and paying for it and that sale tax is best way, however, “A new tax initiative on the ballot might not pass,” he said because of the economy and COVID-19 shutdown.
The BOCC unanimously agreed to go with the county manager’s suggestion and then directed staff to publish notice of its intent to consider amending the existing infrastructure surtax ordinance (the WSPP Surtax Ordinance 16-06) at the Board’s meeting on April 28, 2020.
Hutchinson said he thinks the community will support the communications system upgrade.
“This is about making first responders more effective,” he said. “And if ever there was a year about first responders this would be it.”