City considers joining radio pact

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Posted by on January 22, 2010 at 15:33:05:

Jim Ferolie
Verona Press editor

It only seems natural that all police, fire and medical services in Dane County should be able to communicate with one another during an emergency.

But that's not the case, and a recent county proposal to make it possible has been running into problems reminiscent of those here in the Verona Joint Fire District: disagreements over budgets and control.

On Monday, the Verona Common Council likely will have to decide whether to take on a commitment of several thousand dollars to its budget each year to maintain a 22-channel shared system run by the county. All municipalities who wish to join the new system, called DaneCom, have been asked to return letters of intent by Feb. 1.

Mayor Jon Hochkammer said last week he will recommend the council vote in favor of a compromise he helped broker as the president of the Dane County Cities and Villages Association. It would at first split the cost of operating the network 50-50 with the county and establish a new board to control the financial end after that.

County Executive Kathleen Falk's office was still examining the details of that proposal Tuesday, and was expected to offer a response Wednesday in time for another scheduled DCCVA meeting, Falk spokesperson Josh Wescott said. If the DCCVA accepts whatever changes Falk asks for, the decision goes back to each municipality.

"Up until a short time ago I was insistent that the county pay 100 percent (of the costs of the system)," Hochkammer said last Thursday. "In the end, (failure to agree) would cost us more than what this compromise would cost us."

Worse, without an agreement, the 61 municipalities within the county would still not have full interoperability - the ability to all use the same system and same channels. And considering the mutual aid emergency system in place, the mutually shared 911 dispatch center and all the extra emergency management responsibilities that have been imposed by the federal government since 9/11, to have emergency personnel unable to communicate with one another seems absurd.

The timing of this upgrade was prompted by another recent federal requirement - that all public agencies convert to new radio frequencies by 2013. This switch to "narrow banding," which allows the old 25 kHz channels to be split into two 12.5 kHz frequencies, has many agencies already lining up to update their radios because of early-bird specials from radio manufacturers and all sorts of grants that are available now, and some investment in infrastructure will be required just to comply.

But the only way to make the system interoperable is with a much larger payout - estimated at $30 million - for new towers, equipment and software, among other things.

Exactly eight years after 9/11, Falk's office sent a letter to county municipalities offering to have the county pay for the infrastructure if municipalities and their agencies would share in its operations and maintenance. Though the county pays for all of the 911 dispatch center now and would continue to do so, the new radio system would come with about $1.5 million in new costs annually for maintenance, updates and service agreements, among other things, and Falk's letter said funding it will require a commitment from most if not all of the municipalities in the county.

"The alternatives to the project that your public safety leaders helped conceive of and design are 'new' systems without interoperability, but with comparable coverage and reliability to what we have today," Falk wrote in a second letter, with cost-sharing estimates. "As we all know, that technology was painfully and tragically absent for responders who answered the call for help on September 11, 2001."

The DCCVA-authored counterproposal, authored in a joint meeting with the Dane County Towns Association last Wednesday, warns of the potential of some municipalities opting out, even with the compromise. And should that happen, the interoperability would remain limited.

"The majority of Wisconsin counties that have implemented or are implementing similar interoperable radio communications systems have placed the physical infrastructure, operations and maintenance costs on the county property tax levy," Hochkammer wrote in the cover letter of the Jan. 13 compromise. "The one county that did not still has not attained a fully integrated system, which has created significant flaws or voids in that county's emergency radio system."

That's not news to Dane County, which would have read about that convoluted situation in Waukesha County in its own 51-page report on how the new system should be organized. The report, written in January 2009 by Ehlert and Associates, points out that 29 of 37 municipalities - but only 49 percent of Waukesha County's residents - are protected by the countywide system.

The Dane County Board agreed to fund construction of the system last fall when it passed the 2010 capital budget, and Falk's office prepared a contract with Motorola, subject to receiving letters of intent to join the system from most of the municipalities.

Several parts of the county executive's proposal, however, drew fire. Not only did it ask for the funding of the system operations and maintenance to be shared 100 percent among area emergency agencies (including the state and county sheriff's office), it included a funding formula based on population and relative wealth and a governing structure that would have theoretically allowed the county and the City of Madison to control the board.

The proposal later offered to have the county fund the system 100 percent in 2012 and begin the cost sharing in 2013, but it still didn't sit well with the DCCVA or the Dane County Towns Association (The City of Verona's share that year would be $27,473, and the town's would be $5,473).

The DCCVA and DCTA met twice in the past month on this issue, and last week members reluctantly came up with a compromise, Hockammer said, voting 13-5.

The two biggest elements are the funding of the system in 2013 - splitting the cost with the county 50-50 - and the governing structure of the board that will determine the funding. The DCCVA proposal asks for a 15-member board comprising three members each from Madison, Dane County and the DCCVA, two from the DCTA, one from the state and one appointment each from fire, police and EMS associations.

"We're proposing it's a separate board that deals with only this issue," Hochkammer explained. "It will take a third organization partial vote to approve anything. It demands more of a consensus."

The counterproposal also clarifies the definition of operations and maintenance to avoid other 911 center costs being tossed in, and it mandates the creation of 22 channels rather than the 18 proposed by the county. It also reinstates an element called "tactical sub-system coverage" that Fitchburg fire chief Randy Pickering - the main architect of the system - told the DCCVA was necessary.

But the big key was the cost, and even the compromise doesn't make all the municipalities happy there, particularly with the tight budgets most municipalities have endured the past couple of years.

"A lot of people that were opposed, not opposed by the system but opposed to the cities villages and towns paying anything," Hochkammer said. "The more money we put into this backbone system the less we have available for our own public safety."

Falk's Nov. 18 letter, which offered to fund 2012 operations and maintenance at 100 percent but removed the tactical sub-system coverage, calls those compromises "final" and a "good-faith effort" in order to encourage full participation. But Hochkammer said that "final" offer would not fly with the municipalities.

"The sentiment after the vote certainly was if the county executive doesn't accept this counterproposal and she goes back to her final offer, most of the municipalities will probably send back a letter of intent to not sign on to the system," he said.

"It's very difficult to say where this is going to end up, but the timeframe is getting short."

UPDATE: The DCCVA voted Wednesday night to reject the counterproposal put forth by Falk and Dane County Board Chair Scott McDonell (see sidebar).

Falk and McDonell's offer, delivered shortly before the meeting, agreed to the 50-50 split and creating a new governance committee but contained several details the group considered questionable or unclear, Hochkammer said.

Though it also extended the deadline to March 1, Hochkammer said he will recommend that the council take action to reject the proposal rather than wait.

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