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Lewis County legislators approve borrowing for $11m radio project

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LOWVILLE — Lewis County legislators are moving forward with an $11.1 million emergency radio system upgrade project and will consider next month whether to invoke a wireless surcharge fee to help pay for it.

“Everyone understood the necessity of it,” said Legislature Chairman Michael A. Tabolt, R-Croghan. “It looks like it’s going to come together the way we foresaw.”

Legislators on Tuesday evening voted 10-0 to borrow up to $11,115,000 for improvements to the county’s emergency communication system.

However, with state Homeland Security funding slated to cover $6 million of the project cost, county officials said they likely will borrow a maximum of only $5.1 million unless state reimbursement for the project were to lag significantly. The amount to be borrowed would be over a period of 10 years.

“Our intentions are not to borrow any more than we need,” said Legislator Jerry H. King, R-West Leyden, chairman of the legislative Courts and Law Enforcement Committee.

The county also will be applying for additional grant funding through the Homeland Security program in hopes of further reducing the local costs, said Robert N. Duclos from Syracuse engineering firm C&S Cos, the county’s radio consultant.

Lawmakers on Tuesday also declared that the project, involving installation of additional radio towers and upgrades to equipment at the Public Safety Building, would have no significant environmental impact under State Environmental Quality Review Act regulations.

Legislators in February approved a contract with E.F. Johnson Technologies Inc. to provide voice, alert paging and dispatch monitor radio systems, as well as hardware and software for the emergency communications center.

Mr. Duclos said the plan is to install six new towers this fall, then add new radio equipment to them and three existing towers next year. The goal is to have the new system up and running by July or August 2015, he said.

A late 2011 study of the county’s antiquated radio system identified many deficiencies, including spotty coverage in many areas and little interoperability among emergency agencies.

County leaders ultimately chose to move to a higher-frequency UHF-based system that will now use nine towers — rather than the four now used — to ensure coverage in most parts of the county. Pagers would remain VHF-based.

The goal of the project is to provide emergency radio coverage to at least 95 percent of the county.

Lawmakers on Tuesday also set a public hearing for 9 a.m. Aug. 5 on a proposed law that would impose a county surcharge on wireless customers to help cover ongoing improvements and maintenance of the radio system. If enacted, the move would add about 30 cents per month to county customers’ wireless bills.

Legislators last year considered a similar measure, but ultimately voted it down after hearing that the surcharge would add only $15,000 to county coffers, with most lawmakers suggesting the relatively small payback would not be worth putting more of a burden on wireless customers.

Legislator Philip C. Hathway, R-Harrisville, who voted against the surcharge last year, asked Mr. Tabolt to seek an updated figure on projected revenue from a county wireless tax. He noted that the situation now is a little different from last year, given that the radio project is moving forward and expected maintenance costs could be more easily defined.

Also, most legislative seats have changed hands since that May 2013 vote.

“At the time, I thought it was a good idea,” said Mr. Tabolt, one of only two legislators to support the measure last year.

Lewis County lawmakers back in 2003 requested permission from the state to add the surcharge, but did not receive needed approval at the time.

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