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County asks city to help keep BOE in emergency radio plan
Main funding source for new system is $6.75 million earmark in six-year SPLOST approved Nov. 6
emergency radio system
Ted Wynn, right, Bulloch County public safety director, speaks during Monday's meeting on the planned replacement for the multiagency radio system. (AL HACKLE/staff)

In a multiagency meeting Monday about Bulloch County's planned new public safety radio system, county government officials called for keeping the schools involved as users of the radio system, even if the county and cities have to foot more of the bill for the shared hardware.

About 50 people filled the county Emergency Operations Center briefing room, including public safety personnel, county commissioners, most of Statesboro's council, city and county staff members. No Board of Education members or the school superintendent were there, but new School Safety Director Todd Mashburn, employed by the BOE, represented the Bulloch County Schools.

"You can't put a dollar amount of human life," Sheriff Noel Brown said after the meeting. "When we're dealing with budgetary matters we understand that money has to be moved around, but when it has to do with the safety of our citizens and the safety of the men and women in uniform here in public safety, you cannot put a dollar amount on a human life, and I think they've got to be able to communicate."

So he wants all the municipalities, schools and public safety agencies in the county that have been proposed to share in the new radio system to be part of it, he said.

Monday's gathering was prompted by Superintendent Charles Wilson's suggestion to the Board of Education last month the school district might set up its own two-way radio system at less expense than required to buy into the new multiagency system. The school system uses the current 911-connected system, but mainly for the radios on school buses.

Each school also has at least one radio, but schools more often use phones to call 911, as Mashburn and Wilson have explained.

SPLOST and E-SPLOST

The main funding source for the county's purchase of the new digital radio system is a $6.75 million earmark in the six-year Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax, or SPLOST, approved by voters Nov. 6. However, school system officials had budgeted $1.5 million from the separate Education SPLOST, renewed by voters in 2017, to pay for a share of the public safety radio network's maintenance and operation and for the radios used in schools and buses.

But in negotiations last summer for the city of Statesboro to keep more SPLOST revenue for other projects, the Bulloch County Board of Commissioners and Statesboro City Council added a "capital recovery" clause to their agreement. It implies that any users of the radio system other than the county, Statesboro, Brooklet, Portal and Register will share in the cost of the infrastructure, which includes three towers.

Proposed cost shares were based on the number of radios, and the school system, projected to get 268 radios, would be the third-largest user, behind the county with 502 radios and the city of Statesboro with 313. Georgia Southern University, East Georgia State College and Ogeechee Technical College were also asked to share in the costs.

But sharing in the infrastructure would add $1 million to the school system's cost of participation, bringing the total over five years to almost $2.5 million, Wilson showed the school board in October.  He also shared an estimate that a separate school radio system could be had for about $875,000 over five years.

This could have some drawbacks, including the uncertain cost projection and the loss of direct 911 access through the radios, Wilson acknowledged.

Late in process

The "interconnectivity" of schools and public safety agencies, helping ensure a rapid and coordinated response to incidents at the schools, is a major advantage of the shared system, Bulloch County Public Safety Director Ted Wynn said Monday.

The school district's possible withdrawal and county officials' concern that Statesboro might back out rather than let the schools participate without sharing in infrastructure costs prompted Monday's meeting.

"We sat down here time after time after time for the last two years," County Manager Tom Couch told the group. "That was the time to run. There were numerous opportunities. … We've got time and we've got money already invested in this before the first tower goes up."

Statesboro, the county, the Board of Education and Georgia Southern split the $60,000 fee for Omnicom Consulting Group's study on the best way to upgrade to radios compliant with the P25 digital standard. Omnicom's recommendations resulted in a contract offer from Motorola, as sole bidder. Now the SPLOST referendum has passed, earmarking the radio system as a shared countywide project.

"We are not here to force anybody to join," said county commissioners Chairman Roy Thompson. "City, you don't have to join. Board of Education does not have to join. Georgia Southern does not have to join. Now, it's going to be a burden on the county, but the county is going to order this system. We have to. The old system is gone. We have to do this, we would love for y'all to join, but if you think you don't need it, then so be it."

"Good luck when disaster comes, that's all I can say, simple put," he added, but later returned to a conciliatory tone, asking that everyone stay on board.

Unless the school system can be convinced to stay, its annual share in the system maintenance costs will shift to the other participants. This would add an estimated $65,000 to the city of Statesboro's annual cost, Wynn noted.

Past 90 days

"We had a 90-day window to enter into this contract with Motorola," he said. "We're past that, but they've been patient with us in trying to work through the political aspect of this whole project, but I would just ask the city and the county officials to huddle up and to reconsider the maintenance impact going forward and what it may cost."

Statesboro City Manager Randy Wetmore told the county officials that they were asking the city "to balance all this and make these decisions," when the school system leaders also have a decision to make about the risk they would take.

But city officials did not threaten to withdraw. 

"We support you guys. We appreciate what you do," Statesboro Councilman Phil Boyum told the public safety officials. "We just hope that everybody will get on board, but I can tell you that the council will do the right thing."

County Attorney Jeff Akins suggested that the existing agreement allows room for compromise.

"The SPLOST agreement simply says that for other users to come on the system there has to be a user agreement acceptable to the county and the cities," he said. "It doesn't specifically say what that user agreement has to say, the terms and conditions of it, so there's definitely room for some flexibility there in negotiating."

Wilson had told county officials last week he wouldn't be able to attend the meeting because of a prior commitments, he noted in an evening phone call.

"I'm not saying that there's not a value to these radios," Wilson said. "I am completely and fully in support of our public safety infrastructure, and I'm completely in support of, to the reasonable extent, us being a part of that. The question is, what is the reasonable extent."

Now he and the board need more time to do consider their options, he said.

Herald reporter Al Hackle may be reached at (912) 489-9458.

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