Columbia County Board OKs borrowing $3.24M for radio upgrades
About 4½ years after borrowing $45.51 million for the biggest building project in Columbia County history, the County Board on Wednesday approved borrowing money for upgrades of the county’s public safety communications system and software for it.
The resolution to borrow no more than $3.24 million passed 22-1. At least 21 “yes” votes from the 28-member body were required for passage regardless of how many were present by board rules.
Supervisor Gary Leatherberry of the town of Dekorra cast the sole dissenting vote. Supervisors Mike Weyh, John Stevenson, Keith Miller, Jon Plumer and Christopher Polzer were absent.
Sheriff Roger Brandner told the board the project would entail updating software for the county’s 10 radio towers and handheld, mobile and stationary communications equipment used not only by sheriff’s deputies, but also by the county’s highway department and police, fire and emergency medical crews throughout the county.
“This is not just for the sheriff’s department, this is for our citizens,” said Supervisor Barry Pufahl of Pardeeville. “This is protecting them.”
According to Brandner, the radio equipment update has nothing to do with 911 emergency communications. It is about the ways in which the dispatchers at the Law Enforcement Center communicate with the officers, highway employees, firefighters and emergency medical personnel throughout the county.
Columbia County has 10 radio towers at various locations, which require updates to accommodate modern digital usage.
In addition, plans call for allowing officers to encrypt communications in certain tactical situations — such as the summoning of a Special Weapons and Tactics (SWAT) team, a crime in progress, a standoff or a hostage situation — so that only dispatchers and public safety employees can hear the communications, and not the public listening on scanners.
Brandner said local police, fire and ambulance services will not be required to buy all new digital equipment, because the sheriff’s office will retain the ability to communicate via the existing analog equipment that many departments still have.
This prompted Supervisor James Foley of the town of Leeds to ask whether it would be wise to undertake a top-to-bottom update of all the equipment.
For sure, Brandner replied, but it would be expensive — costing “tens of millions of dollars.”
The department has received a price quote of $2.86 million from a company familiar with the department’s existing Motorola equipment.
The resolution includes a reference to an October 2017 County Board resolution authorizing a contract with Spillman Technologies for the purchase of software related to records and jail management, computer-aided dispatching and mapping.
The 2017 resolution was passed to allow the county to make a down payment for this software using money from a one-time payment to the county from American Transmission Company for the environmental impact of a high-voltage power line that passes through the county. The resolution specified that the remainder of the software cost would come from borrowing in 2019 — the borrowing that the supervisors approved on Wednesday.
Foley also asked why Brandner didn’t open the project to bidders, as is the typical practice under the county’s procurement policies.
Brandner replied that a company familiar with Motorola equipment is necessary, otherwise the county is opening itself up to technological glitches that may be complicated to repair.
Brandner said the equipment and tower upgrades are expected to start next fall and take about six months to complete.
The county did a similar upgrade in 2011, when the board voted to borrow up to $4.06 million for the project.
The life of the upcoming improvements, Brandner said, is likely to be eight to 10 years.
In response to a question from Leatherberry, Brandner said it could be “eight to 10 years” before modern digital communication — with satellites and global-positioning systems — would make radio towers obsolete. Companies are not yet getting into public safety communication with that type of equipment, he said.