Emporia City Commissioners expressed hesitation over the city’s participation in upcoming communications upgrades during a Wednesday morning study session.
The project would see local emergency personnel and public safety responders — including the Lyon County Sheriff’s Office, Emporia Police Department and Emporia Fire Department — joining the Kansas Statewide Interoperable Communication System, using a digital 800 MHz trunked system. Roughly 70 percent of the state’s public safety responders currently use the system.
The city’s cost would be $830,000 for 229 radios, which includes a 5 percent discount, if commissioners opted to sign a contract by Nov. 8 along with the Lyon County Commission.
Senior IT Technician Scott Price told commissioners that the current radio system had experienced two failures on primary channels and three bent antennae due to severe weather over the last several weeks. While equipment has been sent out for repair, the need for updated communications equipment was once again brought to light.
Commissioner Danny Giefer said he was unsure on the total number of radios that was being requested, including the amount for non-emergency departments such as public works, parks department and the zoo. Mayor Jon Geitz said he agreed.
”I’m really struggling with the non-emergency departments radios,” he said. “If we have an emergency, I don’t know what the zoo, the parks department, facilities, what they are going to do. If we don’t have an emergency, every single one of those employees has a cell phone. Every one of those has a department manager. We have one radio for the city manager’s office. If we have an emergency, they are going to be the ones involved — not the people at the zoo or the parks department.”
Geitz said he would like to see cutting down the number of radios in those non-emergency departments in half and see if additional radios are actually needed.
”I would rather say in 2021, we do need 10 new radios,” he said.
Price said he understood Geitz’s hesitation, but reminded him that the first thing to go down in an emergency is cellular communications.
Geitz said he was also unhappy with how the project was brought to the commission.
”One of the things that I was really adamant about when I joined the city commission six years ago was long-range financial planning,” he said. “This is an unbudgeted item that has not once been in our five-year budget. We were briefed over the summer. If this upgrade was coming, that’s something we should have done a better job planning on, on a staff level. ... I don’t like this process on how we got here.”
Emporia Fire Chief Jack Taylor then stepped in and said, in an emergency, all city personnel could potentially become first responders.
”It’s all hands on deck when you get hit with a tornado or you get hit with a blizzard or whatever it might be,” Taylor said. “From a firefighter safety perspective, every time we do an investigation on firefighter fatalities, communications is one of the major issues that arises. That’s our lifeline. That’s critical to all of us. When we get public works involved in cleaning streets, getting traffic open, all of that, we continue needing that ability to communicate.”
Emporia Police Chief Scott Cronk agreed with Taylor, and said the need for an upgraded system happened faster than anyone had expected.
”We will apologize that there wasn’t a five-year plan, but we had discussed it and we knew we would have to bond this,” Cronk said. “This happened a lot faster than we thought it would and it even moved faster than I thought it would. So again, we had the discussion but we thought it would be bonded because we thought there would be no way to work it into our five-year budget, so if that caused heartburn for somebody, I apologize, but that was the only way we felt we could do it.”
Further discussion on the topic was had at Wednesday’s city/county luncheon.
County Controller Dan Williams discussed each party’s obligations with city officials, laying out a timeline for when the project would be fully paid off.
“The county will be responsible for the structures and all that...” Williams said. “If the city can funnel all the radios that they want to purchase through our lease agreement, our lease agreement would state that we have one year interest-free. Our intention would be to pay it off at the end of next year, but there is also an option on that lease to go to three to five years if we wanted to. It’s not our intention to do that, though; our intention is to pay that off at the end of next year. Any money spent won’t be spent until the end of next year … For the city, it would be required to — at the end of next year — pay for the radios to the county.”
City Commissioner Rob Gilligan said the number of radios the city may purchase was still fluid at this point, but expected to nail down a final number after a few additional discussions with the involved parties. County commissioners tentatively expect the radio order to be presented at their Oct. 24 meeting.
“The commission is still looking at what our final number of radios needs to be,” Gilligan said. “We want to verify that for sure before we give our final number. A number of 229 is one we discussed today, and we may end up there, but we’re asking for a little bit more data.”
Geitz raised concerns about the possibility of additional costs to the city if the project was unable to deliver on its goal of 95 percent coverage to the area, but was ensured payment would be based on effectiveness.
“If we’re being provided a guarantee, I want to make sure there’s a mechanism to ensure that the guarantee is being met,” Geitz said.
“The guarantee is that we won’t pay the bill until those conditions are met,” Williams responded. “The whole idea is that Motorola wants to get the equipment ordered and shipped to start implementing the changes as soon as they can. By having the lease, they have the ability to do that because if we did it on a contract, they wouldn’t have the ability to invoice us anything or ship us anything until after the first of the year because we didn’t have it in the budget. By the end of next year, hopefully everything will be satisfactory to where we can pay the bill.”
Discussions on the radio upgrades will continue on both the city and county level in the coming weeks.