Aug. 08–OSKALOOSA, IA– The immediate future of Mahaska County’s proposed new law enforcement and emergency radio system was the subject of an intense debate between the Mahaska County Board of Supervisors and county law enforcement and emergency responder officials Monday, with both sides bickering back and forth about the type of system chosen and its funding.
The need for a new county-wide radio system has been in the spotlight of local officials for most of 2017 after complaints from Oskaloosa Police Chief Jake McGee, Mahaska County Sheriff Russell Van Renterghem and 911 Center/Mahaska County Emergency Management Agency Director Jamey Robinson. All three warned the members of the Board of Supervisors of problems with the current radio system.
The issue dates back to 2015, when Mahaska County Engineer David Shanahan reported to his superiors that his employees were having issues with the county radios. That initial complaint revealed that more county employees, notably law enforcement and first responder personnel, were having problems with the system as well.
According the three officials, the current radio system–which is used by city police, county sheriff’s officials, EMTs and paramedics as well as firefighters and any other first responder — has been plagued with problems including a lack of reception, poor reception or just plain not working.
The county currently uses a VHF radio system. The options previously mentioned are to build a new system altogether or join one of two other radio systems currently being developed–one called SARA–and a new 700-800 Mhz system the state of Iowa is constructing.
During Monday’s meeting, Van Renterghem spoke to the three supervisors with an attorney–Steven Nadel–asking for support for a possible bond to help pay for the new radio system. The cost of the system has not been determined, but early investigations into the cost of construction and development of a new system have ranged from $1.9 million to as much as $9 million.
Van Renterghem said he was before the supervisors to ask for their consideration in regard to funding the radio system, specifically whether or not the EMA Commission and Mahaska County Communications Committee could bond for funding through the Board of Supervisors. The funds would be repaid to the county by via a 28E Agreement with the EMA Commission, he added.
Nadel, who admitted he didn’t represent either side in the discussions, told the supervisors that the new radio system is defined as being for an “essential county purpose,” and that the supervisors can issue bonds for the project without an election. Nadel also described some of the other somewhat complex options for funding.
One of the problems with the situation is the unknown cost of the new radio system. The Board of Supervisors agreed earlier this year to fund a Request for Proposals, also known as an RFP, to seek firms that could possibly bid on the radio project. However, Van Renterghem said the RFPs have not been sent out yet and there is no set cost estimate for the project. Two firms frequently mentioned for the new system are Raycom and Motorola.
“We’re coming to you [the board of supervisors] because this is the cheapest [funding option] interest-wise,” Van Renterghem said of county bonding. “One point nine million dollars is a lot of money. We came here to get a commitment, not on the price, we don’t know a price. What we’re looking for is, are you guys going to support this.”
Robinson, who was at the meeting with other local law enforcement officials including Oskaloosa Police Chief Jake McGee, said companies interested in possibly bidding for the right to construct the radio system want assurances there will be funding.
“They want to know you’re going to truly move forward with this,” Robinson told the supervisors.
Supervisor Willie Van Weelden told Van Renterghem and others involved with the project that he is not in favor of “giving an open check” for the project without knowing the cost.
“I think there are still some questions about which way you guys are going to go with this,” Van Weelden added.
Supervisor Mark Groenendyk, who is the Board of Supervisor’s representative to the EMA, said he has been frustrated with what he called “mis-information” that has been spread about the radio system project over the past few months.
“My concern is the best economic coverage we can get,” Groenendyk said.
Mahaska County currently uses an outdated VHF radio system with one aging tower, which is located on the campus of William Penn University. Options for a new system include building a brand new system with multiple radio towers, joining the state-wide law enforcement system or joining the SARA regional radio system.
During a June 22 meeting of the Emergency Management Agency Commission, a second attorney–Carlton Salmons–told the commission members that the radio system project, which is being managed by the Mahaska County Communications Committee, needed to become more formalized and seek appropriate sources of funding for the project.
Salmons was present at Monday’s Board of Supervisors meeting, and he assured the supervisors that the EMA and Communications Committee representatives were seeking the, “best qualified bidders at the lowest price.” Salmons added that the EMA Commission didn’t know where the radio system process is headed mainly because no bid requirements have been set and no bids have been let at this time.
“The reason you’re involved [the Board of Supervisors] is the EMA director was making decisions with an ad hoc committee [The Mahaska County Communications Committee],” Salmons explained. “We are just looking for a signal of acceptance that your bonding capacity can be used by the EMA.”
Board of Supervisors Chairman Mark Doland, who had been silently listening during much of the lengthy presentation, expressed his concerns about officials having one favorite option when it comes to acquiring a new radio system. Doland said he wants assurances that the selection system for a contractor or joining a new system will be fair.
“I been listening to this discussion for a long time. The elephant in the room is, it seems like the [communications committee]–at least a couple of members–have a hesitancy toward [joining] the state system,” Doland said, referring to the system managed by the Iowa Statewide Interoperable Communications Systems Board–also known as ISICSB. “I feel like there has been…there is a favorite system.”
Doland added that some members of the committee do not like the state system, while others seem to prefer the SARA system.
Van Renterghem told Doland and the other supervisors there is no one favorite system amongst the members of either the Communications Committee or the EMA.
“The [committee] is not in favor of one system over another,” he said. “Personally, I favor the SARA system. As far as the state system, I don’t trust [that] the state won’t charge a user fee down the road. The [committee] has not decided we don’t like the state system.”
After several more minutes of discussion, Doland said the Board of Supervisors is in favor of helping fund the project, they just want it to be conducted properly and fairly.
“We’re willing to bond for the system you need,” Doland stressed. “We have questions about the integrity of the process.”