The purchase of a new, multiagency public safety radio system is moving forward with the Bulloch County government buying radios for the county school district and not billing the Board of Education for a share of the tower infrastructure.
This reduces the projected cost to the school district by almost $1.5 million from an October estimate. The county’s offer leaves the school board to pay about $1 million over five years in annual maintenance and operation fees to keep the schools and school buses in the 911-connected radio network, as opposed to $2.5 million.
“They have come back and figured out how to keep us on the 911 system by limiting our cost to basically what our cost would be if we went off to the alternate proposal I brought forward,” Bulloch County Schools Superintendent Charles Wilson said in a Nov. 30 interview.
Originally, Wilson and the BOE tagged $1.5 million for the schools’ share in the radio system from the five-year Education Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax, or E-SPLOST, approved by voters in 2017. Meanwhile, the county and the four towns are funding the purchase of the radio system from their shared six-year SPLOST renewal approved in a separate referendum this November.
But at the insistence of Statesboro city officials, the county commissioners agreed to add a “capital recovery” clause to the intergovernmental agreement signed last summer. It required that radio system users other than the county and cities be asked to share in the costs of infrastructure, including the antenna towers.
Shares were to be based on radio units, and Bulloch County’s public schools would have the third-most radios, behind the county government and Statesboro. With the infrastructure costs for Brooklet, Portal and Register also covered by the countywide SPLOST, the school system would have had the highest cost of any non-municipal user, the others being Georgia Southern University, Ogeechee Technical College and East Georgia State College.
The capital recovery request increased the school system’s projected cost from the $1.5 million it originally budgeted to $2,475,000, Wilson showed the BOE in October. He also supplied an estimate that the school system could buy its own radios and obtain service through commercially available towers for about $1 million over the next five years.
Wilson had noted that school personnel could use phones to call 911 and already do. However, county officials, including Sheriff Noel Brown and Public Safety Director Ted Wynn, urged keeping the school system on the public safety radio system for reliability and rapid response.
At the Board of Education’s last regular meeting of the year, Nov. 29, Wilson announced that Wynn, County Manager Tom Couch and county commissioners Chairman Roy Thompson had told him about a new offer. The county officials were now asking the school system to pay only its prorated share of the annual maintenance and operations costs, Wilson said.
So the school board stands to save about $500,000 of the $1.5 million originally budgeted from the Education SPLOST. The board can apply that to school safety improvements, Wilson said.
“You see what that does is, they’ve presented us with a win-win situation,” he said when phoned the next day. “We are still going to be able to save the half million dollars and direct it toward other safety efforts, but at the same time they’re bringing us on with the 911 system. That’s why I was so complimentary of what they’ve done.”
The county government, he said, “is really leading the way and setting a precedent” by recognizing that responsibility for public safety belongs primarily to the county and cities.
Couch said that funding the radio system infrastructure from the multi-agency SPLOST has consistently been county’s intent.
“We feel like SPLOST should be able to pay for the basic radio infrastructure, and even though the city has contemplated a separate agreement with Motorola pursuant to the radio unit purchases, we’re content with paying for the initial radio units for the school system and the other public safety agencies,” Couch said last week.
In fact, on Dec. 4 the Bulloch County commissioners unanimously approved the contract with Motorola with a base price of $5,971,800.
The upgrade to federal Plan 25-compliant digital radios will replace a 19-year-old, 800 megahertz-band system that Motorola and other vendors no longer support.
“We, the county, have to have radios,” Thompson said last week. “Our system now is obsolete, and so our greatest concern is if disaster, catastrophe, whatever happens that our deputies can talk to each other, to the city, to Georgia Southern, to the school board, and so we had to modernize the equipment.”
The commissioners also needed to act when they did to keep some incentive discounts that were part of Motorola’s bid, he said.
Unresolved at city
Still unresolved is how the school system’s participation can be worked into the intergovernmental agreement. The agreement gives the city, as well as the county, a say in letting other users aboard. Couch said further discussion will probably wait until after the holidays, and Statesboro City Manager Randy Wetmore said City Council may need more information from the county.
“The city has always said that it would be a part of the system. We have that in our SPLOST as well,” Wetmore said. “It’s the letting on of the other users, so maybe the county has some information that they’ll be sharing with us here in the near future so we’ll know what kind of amendment we’ll have to have to the (agreement).”
Meanwhile, the county commissioners are working with a financial advisor to find the lowest possible interest rate on a $12.66 million bond issuance, Couch said. Also authorized by the referendum, the bonds to be repaid by SPLOST will finance the jail expansion and sheriff’s headquarters renovation project, as well as the radio system purchase.
Herald reporter Al Hackle may be reached at (912) 489-9458.