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October 19, 2018

1/26/2018 3:10:00 PM
County Board gets request to handle sky-rocketing public safety costs

When the countywide emergency communications system massive upgrade got underway about five years ago it was very expensive,  and equipment and accessories haven’t gotten any cheaper.

The County Board heard last week that the time to replace some network components is soon upon us and commissioners were also told subscriber and/or user fees and costs for the ARMER radios could as much as double.  

On top of that expense  the county needs to boost the fees to fund an account to be drawn down over the next several years,  to help reimburse the county for sustaining the equipping replacement cycle.  

The vote on making all participating agencies part of the replacement fund (including the sheriff) through an access fee hike, was 5-0.  The fee will be $890 per radio in 2019.

The subscriber fee starting in 2019 will be  $1,290 per radio, with the vote 3-2,  Commissioners Montzka and Walker opposed.  
County Information Services Director Jon Eckel explained that components in the communication system see rapid advances and loss of technical support,  and just like other electronic goods they become obsolete.
Replacement radio costs are around $2.2 million including all the discounts Motorola had to offer.  

Eckel said the first batch of equipment distributed to county law enforcement agencies and fire fighters was made more affordable through federal and state grants. But, funding streams have dried up since the U.S. reacted to the worst terror attacks on U.S. soil in history.  There are 138 units in the system, including back-up radios for emergency needs maintained by county information services.

The county would need a hike in its levy of 1.5 percent just to cover the needed radio fee increase proposed, should the commissioners policy be to NOT assess anything to the individual departments.

To get to 75 percent of the system paid for from sources outside of the county budget the fee would need to go to $890.  
To get 100 percent of county radio costs covered the fee would be $1,290 per radio.

Chisago County is now underwriting about half the radios’ costs with departments contributing a per unit fee of $605.  When ARMER fees were set in 2012-2013 this was at $480 and in 2016 they went to the $605.

(Lakes Area Police are not involved, the department instituted its own data network. Also Taylors Falls Fire Dept. won a grant allowing that city to buy its own radios and Taylors Falls fire was to contribute a “user” access fee of $385 per radio to be part of ARMER or Minnesota’s allied radio matrix for emergency response.)

The motion adopted was to have the county eat the costs over the existing $605 fee.

Fee revisions won’t be effective until 2019;  but local government units need to budget for something like this so the County Board was asked to decide the evel of aid quickly.

Commissioner Ben Montzka wanted his district’s agencies notified of the looming huge increase and preferred to delay the actions on the agenda last week.  

“I think they (Wyoming and Stacy-Lent fire and Wyoming P.D.) should at least be aware of this before I vote on it,” Montzka said.
Sheriff Rick Duncan affirmed he had not personally spoken to the departments.  He added, “...the bottomline is the money has got to come from somewhere.”  Sheriff Duncan added that his personnel radio fees come out of his budget and his department will take the hit just like everybody else.

“I need direction from the Board before I go in front of the other departments, (presenting the equipment evolution) otherwise it’s discuss, discuss, discuss,” the sheriff remarked.

County Administrator Bruce Messelt said the radio subscriber agreement states that the fee is subject to annual adjustments.
The County Board sets direction (on fee amount) and there’s a meeting typically in February, with all the users.  Messelt explained this informs townships in time for March annual budget meetings.

Montzka said,  “I prefer  we talk first, run it by them or I’ll feel like I am not doing my job.”

Messelt commented he realistically expects the response from police and fire would be that they prefer the county pay all or most of the costs.

Commissioner Lora Walker declared the ability for emergency responders to communicate is “critical.”  She said the county should  keep the agencies’ fee at the $605.  

She will support a county levy hike for 2019 just to cover this, if that’s what it takes.   The fee increase as presented “isn’t affordable” and the county must demonstrate leadership, she said. “Either way the taxpayer is paying” whether it’s the local government tax dollars or the county’s, she concluded.

Board Chair Commissioner George McMahon sits on the Metro Emergency Radio Services Board and commented, “All the counties are going through this right now.”  Radios and other law enforcement data tracking and analytic equipment are actually sophisticated computers,  and “squad cars are offices now,” he added.

 The Board also upheld policy that the Mobile Data Terminals for North Branch and Wyoming police cars to continue to be provided by county funds.  The two departments utilize about $80,000 in county aid for the MDTs, according to the public packet of supporting materials.

In addition, the sheriff budget became part of the equipment replacement fund. To fund this account the access  fee is proposed to become $3,850, from $1,325. This has not been revised since 2013.  The vote on the replacement account was 5-0.
Commissioner Montzka maintained that this is a major  change in the county cost recouping policy, but he was willing to vote yes contingent on this being a “starting point” for negotiating.

In other business:  Nancy Mergens was appointed on the Extension Committee vacancy, Frank Storm was put on the county park board for Robinson’s district and Virginia Stark will have a seat on the Citizen Review Board.

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