After Bulloch County's government and Statesboro's city officials made an agreement that asks the school system, university and colleges to help pay for towers and other infrastructure for a new public safety radio system, the Bulloch County Schools could save $1 million or more by going their own way.
Superintendent of Schools Charles Wilson presented estimates Thursday to the Board of Education. For years, the school system has piggybacked on the existing public safety radio system. This has been "a win-win situation," with the radios on buses and in schools giving direct access to 911 and the public safety agencies in turn having direct access to the school channels, Wilson said.
The main source of funding for the county government to purchase the new radio system is a $6.75 million earmark in the six-year Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax, or SPLOST, extension now on the Nov. 6 ballot. But the school system was to pay for its own bus radios, handheld radios and base station radios plus a share in the system maintenance and operation, and had planned to do this using roughly $1.5 million from its separate Education SPLOST, or E-SPLOST, for which voters approved an extension last November.
"That is what was discussed with the community group, that's what was budgeted in, that's what y'all have been informed to make decisions around," Wilson told school board members. "In the last three to six months that changed."
In June and July negotiations for the city 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 intergovernmental agreement. It requires that any users of the radio system other than the county, Statesboro and the cities of Brooklet, Portal and Register pay a share in the cost of the infrastructure, including the towers.
The shares would be based on the number of radios, and Bulloch County Schools would have the third-largest number of radios, according to the county's list. The school system was projected to get 268 radios; the city of Statesboro 313 radios; and the county government — including the sheriff's department, public safety, emergency medical and other functions — 502 radios. Georgia Southern University would get 70 radios, Brooklet 12, Portal seven, Register three, Ogeechee Technical College three and East Georgia State College four.
The infrastructure share and increased maintenance and operating cost estimates would add $1 million to the school system's total five-year cost of participating in the new system, Wilson said. The precise numbers he presented were $1,458,000 for Bulloch County Schools' originally projected cost and $2,475,338 for the school system's share after the capital cost request, a $1,016,838 increase.
"I am not comfortable at this point saying that this is what we have to do and we must spend that million dollars," Wilson said. "I struggle with that from the standpoint of feeling like the county might get put in a bind on this, but from our perspective, I can't come to it at this point, and I'll do a lot of listening."
BOE radio system
Additionally, Wilson had worked with staff members and obtained an $875,113 estimate for the county school district to fund its own two-way radio system, without a direct connection to the 911 center. This estimate included $595,213 for the system hardware and $279,900 in monthly tower access fees over five years. By these estimates, a separate radio system could not only save the school system the $1 million added cost but $583,000 from its originally expected share in the all-agency system.
Wilson acknowledged this could have some drawbacks, including the uncertainty of the projections and the loss of direct 911 access through the radios. However, he noted that school personnel would still have 911 access like everyone else, by telephone, which he said is often what happens anyway.
Wilson also said that auditors have advised against the school system investing in infrastructure it does not own.
"They have pointed that out on some other agreements," he said. "When it comes down to it, that's not a legally binding issue, it's just an audit finding that they get to point out and they would point out."
The Board of Education made no decision about the radio system Thursday night, when Wilson said he was providing information and alerting the board.
Uncertainty over the school system's participation does not affect the SPLOST authorization, County Manager Tom Couch said Friday. Voter approval would still set aside the same amount of money for the radio system and authorize the county to issue bonds for it and a jail expansion.
SPLOST funding will cover the radio infrastructure costs for the county, Statesboro, Brooklet, Portal and Register. Couch had been willing to let SPLOST cover these costs for the schools and colleges as well, but city officials became insistent on the capital cost recovery arrangement, he said. This was near the end of the negotiations, and county officials agreed to this plan.
But if the school system pulls out, this would not only increase the one-time infrastructure costs to the other agencies but also their shares of ongoing, annual operations and maintenance costs, he said. By Couch's latest estimate, the Board of Education would have contributed $188,000 annually for these expenses.
If this is prorated among the other agencies, the county government's share in the annual costs will increase by more than $100,000, the city of Statesboro's by about $65,000.
"To me, if I'm the city, I'm kind of shooting myself in the foot because now I'm going to have to pay $65,000 a year indefinitely, not counting inflation and things like that, over five years, six years, you can do the math from there," Couch said.
"My hope is that this trend can turn in a different direction," Statesboro Mayor Jonathan McCollar said Friday. "I understand that the Board of Education has to do what they think is in the best for the school system, but at the same time when it comes to public safety, everybody has skin in the game."
Herald reporter Al Hackle may be reached at (912) 489-9458.