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Emergency radio price skyrockets

February 02, 2005|by TARA REILLY

tarar@herald-mail.com

WASHINGTON COUNTY - The cost of a proposed Washington County emergency communications system jumped by more than $5 million to $20.8 million, sparking a brief exchange of words Tuesday between County Commissioner John C. Munson and Sheriff's Department Capt. Douglas Mullendore.

Munson and Mullendore debated the need for the project after Munson said the county's public school system was a higher priority than replacing the outdated communications system.

Mullendore, county staff members and Hagerstown officials on Tuesday attended a commissioners meeting at which the project was discussed.

Public Works Director Gary Rohrer said after the meeting that the project's costs have increased for various reasons. The price now includes features that staff had planned to add years down the road and some earlier cost estimates were off, he said.

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In addition, a project consultant told the county it would have to place communication towers at five more sites to accommodate the system, which was an unanticipated cost, Rohrer said.

There are currently five such sites in the county.

Police, fire and rescue and county officials told the commissioners in January 2003 of the problems emergency personnel face while trying to communicate with each other and with dispatchers - mainly a result of the county's more than 30-year-old emergency communications system.

Munson, who has said that public safety and improving roads should be higher priorities than the school system, said Tuesday school construction projects should rank ahead of the communications system.

"The schools come first before this," Munson said. "The schools are falling apart. We can't do it all, all the time. I'm sorry."

System's weaknesses

Mullendore said Munson didn't understand the critical need to improve emergency communications.

Munson responded that he wouldn't mind paying as much as $25 million for the project if all of the county's debt were paid off.

The county's debt is $131 million, down from $156 million three years ago, Munson said.

"Would you mind, then, if you have to go to a police officer's funeral?" Mullendore asked Munson. "Because that's what it's coming to, John. I'm being serious with you."

Police and emergency responders have said that a weak radio system causes interference and sometimes fails entirely while crews are responding to calls. The new system would speed up communication and allow police and fire and rescue personnel who are out in the field to communicate directly with noncounty agencies, including the Hagerstown Police Department.

The current system does not allow such communication.

If police arrive at a scene and travel more than a quarter-mile from their vehicles, their portable radios do not provide communicate with dispatchers or other vehicles.

The commissioners on Tuesday voted 4-0 to allow an emergency communications steering committee to advertise for requests for proposals for the project.

Commissioner James F. Kercheval was not at the meeting.

Commissioners Vice President William J. Wivell said he wanted more financial details on the project and was disappointed that more grants weren't available to pay for it.

"They're proposing to do this thing on the backs of the county taxpayers," Wivell said after the meeting. "We were led to believe that there would be more grants."

The county has received a little more than $1 million in grants for the project, according to information included with the county's agenda.

The steering committee anticipates the City of Hagerstown contributing some money to pay for radio equipment and possibly other equipment that would be used by city agencies, the information states.

Wivell said staff has proposed borrowing $16 million for the $20.8 million project. Under the proposal, about $7 million of that amount would be borrowed for fiscal year 2006, which begins on July 1.

Rohrer said $7 million would be part of the $12 million staff has proposed borrowing for fiscal year 2006 for construction projects.

The county's original cost estimate for the project was about $17 million. That dropped to $15.5 million, then rose to its current price, Rohrer said.

He said the county would continue to seek the outside assistance.

"It comes in in dribbles and drips," Rohrer said.

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