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County makes the call for radio tower fix
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Radio communications problems that have plagued local emergency personnel could be resolved soon, for the most part.

In a 5-0 vote, Effingham County commissioners approved a plan to upgrade all three communications towers, at a cost of more than $2.9 million. Under the plan, the county will pay for the improvements over 10 years.

Problems with radio communications from the south tower have plagued emergency personnel for several months, and the upgrades were needed to bring it back online. Work on the south tower should begin immediately, Effingham Emergency Management Agency Director Ed Myrick said.

“In my research, in my opinion, we have no choice but to do the three sites,” Myrick said.

“This is as good as it gets. Our communications are struggling.”

Commissioners had the choice of upgrading the south tower and the tower at the multi-agency call center. Though the equipment on the north tower is working, it will be obsolete in 2017, meaning replacement parts will not be available.

“Over the next five to eight years, we’re going to have to do these improvements,” said Commissioner Steve Mason. “It is something that needs to be done.”

Currently, approximately 80 percent of the county is covered by the radio network, and the planned upgrades are expected to increase the coverage to 95 percent. Only a small section of northwestern Effingham would be out of reach, but that area could be covered by Bulloch County’s system.

“This would be smart, long-range planning,” Commissioner Vera Jones said of the tower upgrades.

Under the package approved by commissioners, Motorola will install and upgrade the equipment at all three towers. Working on all three towers, as opposed to the two-site proposal, is expected to be a $500,000 savings.

The south tower, located just inside the county line, has been inoperable after the temporary license for its frequencies expired and could not be renewed again.

“The key thing to remember is what the coverage was like before we had to take the south tower down because of licensing constraints,” said Will Britt of Motorola. “We had very good coverage for users on the south end of the county.”

Monthly payments will be $29,260.17, and the county’s interest rate will be 3.71 percent. A lower interest rate was available at five years. An annual payment plan, which would have started September 2014, would have resulted in installments of $356,015.77 each year to Motorola. Total monthly payments are projected to be $48,000 less than annual payments.

The county also is exploring how to arrange the financing for the upgrades. Much of the money needed for the contract is expected to come from special purpose local option sales tax proceeds. As much as $1.7 million could be used from SPLOST.

 “We have looked at several options,” said county finance director Joanna Wright.

Wright said there is more than $281,000 to use from the Goshen fire station coming under budget, and adjustments to how the sanitation site can be completed could provide another $250,000 in savings to be directed toward the towers.

Other savings might be found in the remaining fire stations to be built coming in under budget, and another $63,000 could be pulled from funding for aerial photography, Wright explained.

Though the city of Rincon has discussed sharing some of the cost for the south tower upgrade, commissioners said they weren’t including any possible financial help from Rincon in their financing plan.

Maintenance over the next five years is expected to cost the county $923,000, and that money must come out of the general fund and not SPLOST, Myrick said.

The county lost its ability to renew the temporary license for frequencies at its south tower because of overlap from South Carolina radio traffic. The upgrades were needed to allow for new frequencies to be used.

Motorola representatives told commissioners that the equipment has software updates planned up to 2028 and should be able to handle any changes for the next 20 years.

Myrick also pointed out that Effingham is a part of the Southeast Georgia Regional Radio Network and if a change is made to that system, the county would have to go along with that and it would be an additional cost.

“There are no plans to do that this moment,” he said. “Everyone is pretty much broke.”

As part of the agreement, Motorola will assume up to $50,000 of any costs that might be incurred if the towers structures need to be upgraded. Myrick said they won’t know what work, if any, will need to be done until an engineer inspects the towers.

He also commended Motorola for its working relationship with the county, especially in repairing damage caused by lightning strikes.

“Savannah Communications has eaten $60,000 worth of damage,” Myrick said. “We definitely have a relationship you are not going to find anywhere else.”