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June 19th, 2019

ROBERT PIERCE • Leader & Times

 

EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the final in a series regarding a joint meeting between the Liberal City Commission, Seward County Commission and the local 911 Communications Board and a special meeting between the city commission and the communications board April 11 and 12 to try to update emergency communications equipment locally.

Today’s story will talk discussions at the April 12 special city meeting and a final consensus reached between the two boards to jointly pay for a new tower and possibly new dispatch equipment and mobile radios.

After more than two hours of discussions in the course of two meetings, the Liberal City Commission finally came on board with a plan to build a new communications tower in Seward County.

That decision came after a little more discussion after an initial motion made by Commissioner Tony Martinez at the April 12 special city meeting with the 911 Communications Board.

That motion, which was seconded by Vice Mayor Taylor Harden and approved unanimously, came after more discussion, starting with Liberal Fire Chief Kelly Kirk, who pointed out a large part of the money for the tower, new dispatch equipment and new 800 megahertz mobile radios does not need to come out of neither the city’s nor the county’s budget.

“That money is in the three 911 funds right now,” he said. “Now we’re up to $900,000. Follow me on this. That money’s paid out of the 911 fund. That gets our dispatch center where it needs to be. The next consideration is we bundle all the antennas and repeaters for 800 mhz because we know we’re going to 800 mhz. We bundle all that together, and we calculate what 800 radios do we have now and what 800 radios do we need.”

Kirk said the next process was to contact Motorola to let that company know repeaters and radios were needed, as is a price for those items.

“That’s based on my knowledge of the current communications system and the radios that are currently in existence,” he said. “That number will be somewhere between $1.5 million and $2.2 million to convert us completely to 800 mhz. That’s not for either entity. That’s a split cost, about $750,000 apiece.”

Kirk said this allows the entities to plan for that money in their 2020-2021 capital budgets.

“That will give us the opportunity, once we know that number, to pursue grants to go try to get free money to pay for this, or we finance it through Motorola at almost zero percent interest,” he said. “Maybe we finance $1.5 million for five years at $300,000 a year, and it’s $150,000 each entity. That will be a lot better to try to budget into our capital budgets $150,000 than trying to pay $750,000 all at once.”

Kirk then asked if there was money available in the city’s 1-cent sales tax fund to help offset the cost of the project.

“This is an entire community public safety project,” he said. “We’re talking the communications for sheriff, police, both fires, EMS, emergency management in the event of a tornado, ice storm, wind storm, whatever. Isn’t that what the sales tax money’s for, and isn’t that where that money’s coming from? The people who drive through here from Iowa.”

Commissioner Jack Carlile, who joined the meeting via phone, said taking money from the sales tax would also take it away from other projects.

“You take that sales tax money away from the police department, what am I supposed to do?” Carlile said. “Lay off half the police department?”

“I’m not saying that,” Kirk said. “We’re not paying salaries out of that, but aren’t they the ones that use that? The folks from the county who come to town and shop. The folks from Oklahoma who come to town and shop. The people who drive through here from Iowa on vacation and spend the night in a motel and eat supper and have a car wreck and use our EMS and our fire and our police service.”

Kirk said while he is not looking at paying for the entire project out of the 1-cent sales tax, that money could help fund it.

“Could sales tax help?” he said. “I’m just throwing that out there. That’s something we need to consider.”

Liberal Finance Director Chris Ford said if sales tax money is to be used, other issues could come into question as well.

“We’ve got a sales tax question coming up,” Ford said. “We’re only guaranteed until October of 2021. There’s kind of a short window there.”

Kirk then outlined money already earmarked for the project, starting with $600,000 out of the 911 fund.

“The county already has $150,000 set aside for the tower,” he said. “The city has $75,000. We’ve already got $825,000 of that $3 million spoken for and planned for. If we all agree we’re going to 800, if we don’t build this tower, this is going to fracture the relations between the city and the county to the point that it’s almost irreparable, and if this doesn’t happen, the rest of it will never happen, and we might as well be a divided community and go on.”

Discussions regarding the project began at the April 11 joint meeting with the city commission, the 911 board and the Seward County Commission. After that talk took place, Seward County Administrator April Warden said county officials were unsure what would happen in terms of the city’s part of the project.

“Based on the decision the county made last night, they didn’t have a good idea you guys would do anything,” she said. “I think they have found the $300,000 if that’s what it takes to move forward with the project.”

Harden said he spoke with county commissioners after the April 11 meeting, and he gave Warden his opinion on where those conversations stood.

“They seemed like they would support carrying us on the $75,000 if we voted in support of moving forward with the tower with them, but there’s going to have to be no BS on the city’s end of jerking chains after this point,” Harden said. “If we commit this morning, we’re stuck in this project with them till the end.”

Ford said once a dollar amount was determined for the city’s part, financing from that entity could be examined.

“If I had a good hard estimated number to look at, we could look at our budget and see,” Ford said. “Right now, yes, we do have $75,000 that’s budgeted.”

“I know last year when we all talked about this, I thought we were all budgeting $150,000,” Warden said. 

“That was in September after we had already had budget,” Kirk said.

Kirk later said when the city hosted its 2019 budget hearing, $75,000 was earmarked for the project.

“If the project came to fruition in 2019, we would try to find it somewhere else,” he said.

Kirk said more money exists in his department alone.

“In fire department budget, I believe I have about $10,000 budgeted for radio equipment that we probably could commit,” he said. “I would say in fire department budget, I might be able to find $10,000 to put toward this project for communications.”

“The county budgeted $150,000 in county equipment for this purchase, and we always budget money in Reserve for Claims – special projects,” Warden said. “The county does have the money where we could build the tower this year.”

It was shortly after this part of the discussion when Martinez made his motion.

“I’d like to make a motion that we go on and build this tower,” he said.

“I’ll second that motion,” Harden said. 

Following the motion, the conversation continued for just less than 20 minutes, starting with Harden.

“The city and county commissions might never get along depending on who’s on them, but this binds all of the emergency services that already rely on each other to each other,” Harden said. “Regardless of how bad the city and the county relationship ever gets in the future, the essential services will all still be communicating  flawlessly and have a vested ownership in this project.”

Seward County EMS Director John Ralston said putting the project in place has been a unanimous choice amongst the members of the 911 Communications Board.

“We’ve had questions,” he said. “It has been unanimous amongst every agency on the communications board that this is the path we need to go. There’s never been any dissent amongst everybody that’s represented on that board.”

Seward County Emergency Management Director Greg Standard said at this point, the best thing that could be done with the current tower was to put up repeaters and antennas for each of those repeaters.

“That would make 12 antennas,” Standard said. “We’re paying for two. That’s $10,000. Had we done what would’ve been best for us, it would’ve been a lot more, but we couldn’t justify the cost. We put in a combiner system and spent $7,000 or something dollars on that, but it was a one-time cost. We bundled everybody in together, and they start setting filters to filter each of them out of the other one, which takes away from the power of everybody’s signal. We’re trying to make this work without spending a lot of money. If we owned the tower, there would be six antennas on that tower.”

Liberal Police Chief Dennis Mulanax said the project was the best bang for the buck in the long term, as did Commissioner Ron Warren.

“The numbers work for me now,” Warren said. “To me, my responsibility’s that the numbers work and that I can say in the long run, it’s financially better for our taxpayers. I have to make my decision based on that.”

Kirk said with emergency services technology being driven by what the industry does, the current 400 mhz radios and analog technology are making its way out of the market.

“The industry is shepherding us toward the 800 digital or the 700 or 900 range,” Kirk said. “We’re insulating ourselves against changes in technology and the industry by doing that.”

Later talk centered around an apparent agreement the city and county had made in the past to have the project paid for 60 percent by one entity and 40 percent by another. Many at the meeting suggested making the agreed amount a 50/50 split. Seward County Counsel Nathan Forman said he believed the point to be a valid concern.

“I think it’s something that needs to be looked into,” he said. “(City Attorney) Lynn (Koehn) and I should look at that and get back to both of your commission and the county commission,” Forman said. “I do see that could be a potential in the future where we’re looking at 50/50, 60/40, and everyone’s like, ‘What was it?’ You’ve got new commissions.”

“I think once the lawyers have an opportunity to re-evaluate that, that could be as simple as a vote to approve it just to move it to 50/50 in a meeting on both the city and county commissions’ side,” Harden said. “It would affect the communications board very, very little.”

Harden added if the two entities were going to partner on the project, they needed to fully do so.

“That way, there’s not too much liability on either end,” he said. “There’s not too much financial responsibility on either end.”

Warden said she believed those in the room were looking at two different issues.

“Are you talking 50/50 on the complete tower project, or are you guys wanting 50/50 from here forward on all communications?” Warden said.

“I can tell you that the county is not going to be acceptable to doing 50/50 across the board when communication is housed in a county facility,” Seward County Sheriff Bill McBryde said. “We’re paying gas, electric, water, providing the building, etc.”

“I think I’m okay with the numbers with regards to the 2019 budget, but it would be helpful to sit down with Kelly or somebody and firm up exactly what we’re looking at from the city’s side in the future,” Ford said.

“This allows us to firm those numbers up,” Kirk said. 

“That’s been my problem with the whole thing,” Mayor Connie Seigrist said. “I want real numbers.”

“The problem is you can’t have real numbers,” McBryde said. “That was discussed last night. You have to make a decision. Do we want 800? Do we want 400? Do we want 800 and 400? Do we want analog? Do we want digital? What do we want? We can’t get numbers until we know what we want.”

“If we’re going to do the new tower, I say we just do the 800 digital moving forward,” Harden said. 

Martinez added the 50/50 split to his motion, and Harden seconded the new motion. The commission voted unanimously to approve moving forward with building the tower.

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