The Way I See It
To invest, or not to invest taxpayer money in the Public Safety Radio System – that is the question.
First responders in many communities all over the country still work with inefficient and potentially dangerous radio communications systems – often due to financial constraints, because overhauling or rebuilding these vital networks is extremely costly. Erie is no different.
County Executive Kathy Dahlkemper has proposed a public safety radio system to be part of the County's upcoming 2015 budget, which is one of the most expensive items therein. With a total price tag of $26.4 million, it makes up close to one-third of the $96.3 million budget.
As part of this proposal, Dahlkemper wants Erie County Council to sign off on using $10.5 million in county reserve funds to make payments for at least the first five years of a 20-year capital improvement bond. But County Council members have concerns about the financial aspects of the proposal, including concerns that not enough time exists to finish a funding plan for the safety system prior to the next council meeting (Nov. 18), when a budget is expected to be passed.
Dahlkemper said she hopes that other funding sources, including grants and private funds from businesses and foundations, could help pay for the new radio system. If that doesn't happen, Dahlkemper admitted that roughly $2.1 million in yearly radio system debt would likely be paid with taxpayer dollars from the county's general fund budget. Erie County Council, though, has the final say on whether to fund the project.
To grasp the magnitude of the situation, the Erie County Department of Public Safety is charged with the duty of handling all 9-1-1 calls, the dispatching of emergency personnel, and the management of rescue services throughout the county. The inability of townships and cities to communicate with each other – or even the Department of Public Safety – since they each utilize independent radio systems remains a chief concern.
When the county established its present 9-1-1 center in May 1993, the task was to connect the local, municipal, and city communications systems (dating back to 1974 when Union City was the first community to go online) that existed within the county. Then in 2009, the 9-1-1 Center began providing dispatch services. Over the years, these updates and connections led to a Band-Aid solution via a "spider web" system of circuits and links being installed wherever and whenever a need arose. Today, Millcreek's departments operate on an ultra high frequency (UHF) while county departments communicate on a low-band frequency. Without a mechanism to connect the two, the parties still don't have the ability to fully communicate with each other.
Some areas of the county did not – and still do not – want to participate in having a predominant dispatch center – which is another reason for the lag in a centralized system. The reasoning behind it could be an aversion to change that could cause confusion, in a field where any delay in action can literally be life threatening.
In September, McMurray-based MCM Consulting Group Inc., – which conducted a county-funded study of the radio issue – published its findings in a 57-page document that ultimately concluded that the current system is inefficient and should be scrapped. Under the umbrella of county dispatching responsibilities, there are 34 volunteer fire departments, two city (Corry & Erie) police departments, 19 municipal police departments, one sheriff's department, EMA, and EMS, all operating on either Low-band VHF, high-band VHF, UHF, or 800 MHz radio frequencies, without any real ability to communicate with one another.
There are plenty of silver linings should the county decide to make the proposed investment. Aside from the most pertinent – public safety – it ultimately will provide some cost savings. The current system requires the rental and maintenance of many radio sites; these rentals carry a total price of around $209,000 per year.
But chiefly, this system would allow responders to communicate on common frequencies on the 20 communication towers throughout Erie County to be built over seven primary communication zones, with the city of Erie and Millcreek Township being their own separate zones.
The Erie County Gaming Revenue Authority may also offer a way to help offset a small portion of the financial burden. The authority's Multi-Municipal Collaboration grants program, which started in 2012, would be a fit to possibly help fund the project. Each grant must have a minimum of two parties, which could include a municipal government, municipal authority, the Erie Area Council of Governments, or another intergovernmental group that operates in Erie County. If the county were to apply and be awarded the funds, they could receive upwards of $100,000 to be used towards the project.
Yet the bottom-line questions remain: Is a total overhaul of the radio system necessary, and if so, at what cost should this overhaul be completed, and who should foot the bill?
The way I see it: Public safety is the top priority. The longer the county sustains the existing network for a short-term answer to a big financial question, the more money we are throwing away in the long-term in an effort to provide a "patchwork" to a current process that should most likely be obsolete.
While adapting to a new environment is not easy, if the money spent literally saves the life of one person, it will far outweigh the costs. I'm not generally a proponent of taxing and spending measures, but if a tax increase is necessary, this is one issue that I support as a taxpayer because this investment is worth the cost.
While the county receives some emergency services funding through wireline telephone surcharges, perhaps in the future they should consider having a public safety reserve fund for core public priority issues. This would prevent the county from dipping into reserves or increasing taxes – especially in a climate of tight budgets and increasing scrutiny. The need to protect the public will only grow in the future, and in the end, our ultimate goal should be to create a safer, more secure, and thriving community.
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