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Floyd County first responders ask supervisors to buy $5 million communications system,

Floyd County first responders ask supervisors to buy $5 million communications system,
This slide, part of a presentation by a Motorola sales representative, shows the equipment that would be purchased so Floyd County dispatchers and first responders can use the Iowa Statewide Interoperable Communications System (ISICS). Press photo by Bob Steenson
By Bob Steenson,

Floyd County first-responders are asking the Board of Supervisors to come up with a way to help pay for a potential $5 million upgrade to the radio communications and dispatch system used by law enforcement, firefighters, emergency medical services and others in the county.

The  county Communications Advisory Board and the county 911 Service Board agreed at a meeting held Thursday evening last week to present the proposal at Monday’s Board of Supervisors meeting, seeking $4.95 million for the system.

The item wasn’t on the supervisors’ agenda for action at the Monday meeting, and some of the discussion regarded potential funding sources, including selling property-tax-supported general obligation bonds to raise the money.

The board ended the discussion with an unofficial consensus to seek more detailed information on potential bonding costs.

The proposal would put all county law enforcement, firefighters and other emergency responders on the Iowa Statewide Interoperable Communications System (ISICS), a system the state started building in 2015 to unify communications among first responders.

The main goal would be to improve radio communications throughout Floyd County and with neighboring counties. Emergency responders have identified for some time problems with the current mix of radios and other equipment that first responders use, with areas in the county and even within Charles City where communications is either not available or garbled.

The system would include new mobile radios for police and Sheriff’s Office squad cars and for fire department firetrucks; portable handheld radios for law enforcement officers and firefighters; pagers for firefighters; as well as installation, programming and training.

It would also include a new radio tower either at the Fossil and Prairie Park near Rockford or on a site to be purchased in a farm field southwest of Rockford, and updates to the dispatch center at the courthouse and the existing radio tower at Charles City City Hall.

Motorola Solutions Inc. got the initial bid to build the statewide ISICS, and that company has also sold equipment and service to get individual agencies, communities and counties on the system.

Shari Schmitz, senior account manager for Iowa with Motorola Solutions Inc., was at a joint county Communications Advisory Board and 911 Service Board meeting in May where she spent considerable time going through what ISICS offers and potential costs involved, and again last Thursday where she presented a cost for the system, with a quote good through Aug. 24.

She was also at the Board of Supervisors meeting Monday morning, along with representatives of several of the first responder agencies in the county.

The price Schmitz presented at the joint meeting Thursday and to the supervisors Monday was for $4,349,782 for the system, if purchased through a Motorola lease and if purchased with a maintenance and software update contract that would cost from $235,550 to $274,272 per year for five years, once the system was installed and after the initial one-year warranty.

The total for the maintenance and software update package is $1,272,586.

The $4.35 million cost for tower and dispatch center hardware, installation, programming and training represents a 8.7% state infrastructure hardware discount for the tower and related equipment, and a 51.9% discount on the radios, pagers and equipment accessories individual agencies would get.

Schmitz said the 50%-plus discount is part of the company’s contract with the state for new agencies that want to join the system. She said the contract is ending 2025, and while it will be renewed, she said she doubts the new negotiated discount will be that steep.

Another option besides the Motorola leasing plan is to bond for the amount.

County Auditor Gloria Carr said because the use is considered an essential county purpose the county would not have to hold a referendum on whether it could issue bonds for the expense, but it would have to hold a public hearing, whether it was issuing bonds or borrowing the money through Motorola.

County residents could petition to require a referendum be held. Iowa Code allows residents to petition for a referendum for an essential county service indebtedness with signatures of at least 20% of the number of votes cast in the county at the last presidential election. There were 8,081 votes cast in 2020, and 20% of that is 1,617 valid signatures required on a petition.

Supervisor Chair Mark Kuhn said that the county’s general fund annual carryover is as low as is generally accepted it be allowed to go, and the county’s American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) funds are at about $1 million with more of that likely to be spent in other areas.

“So looking at this it’s going to be the bond,” Kuhn said.

Projection estimates for a $4 million general obligation bond prepared by Northland Public Finance, the county’s bonding company, showed the additional property tax levy to pay off a $4 million bond in 10 years would be between about 45 cents and 45½ cents per $1,000 of taxable valuation.

The projection for 15 years is between about 33 cents and 33½ cents per $1,000, and for 20 years it would be between 27½ cents and 28 cents per $1,000 of taxable assessed valuation.

In all the cases the potential interest rate on the bonds would likely be less than Motorola would charge on the leasing agreement, Carr said.

Both Carr and Kuhn said recent actions by the state Legislature will reduce the amount of property taxes local governments can collect over the next couple of years, with Kuhn saying the total impacts are not even known yet.

In additional to public safety organizations, ISICS is also being used by schools, municipal utilities, secondary roads departments, city public works departments and county conservation departments, Schmitz said.

Ben Chatfield, the Floyd Volunteer Fire Department chief, who has done much of the research and planning for a new communications system, said the number of radios and pagers in Motorola’s bid is the minimum needed for the agencies in the county to operate. Many of the departments will spend additional money from their own resources to provide equipment for every member.

The county 911 Board would also take over much of the maintenance cost of the system, Chatfield said.

The 911 Board has accumulated almost $1 million in its reserves over the years in anticipation of a major expense for new communications equipment, he said, and maintenance for the new system over five years will just about wipe out that reserve.

In addition to the new tower near Rockford and upgrading the existing tower located at Charles City City hall the proposal is for, a complete new system would require 155 portable radios, 60 mobile radios for vehicles, eight base radios and 173 pagers for firefighters. In addition, another five mobile radios might be needed for emergency medical service (EMS) communications.

Schmitz said it would take about four to seven months to get new radios, 12 to 16 months to convert the existing tower at City Hall to the ISICS system, and 18 to 24 months to get the new tower installed near Rockford.

Chatfield said that field tests showed that even without the new tower and using the Charles City tower, the ISICS radios worked across the county with existing ISICS towers in Mason City and Nashua. Adding two Floyd County towers to the system would further increase coverage.

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