Wednesday, April 28, 1999

Radio system levy raises fight

All for upgrade, but some object to tax increase

The Cincinnati Enquirer

        Usually in valleys, almost always inside buildings, dead spots are places where Hamilton County's emergency radio communications system does not penetrate.

        Dead spots are one reason most emergency service officials would like to see Hamilton County voters cast ballots for Issue 3 — a special tax increase that would raise $63.7 million for an improved communications network.

        “We experience failures on our radio system daily,” said Tom Bauer, chief of the Delhi Township Police Department.

        “If we're on Delhi Pike, we sometimes have to radio ahead and tell (the communications center) we're on the scene that's still two blocks away, because we can't talk to them when we get there.”

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        The four-year tax goes to voters Tuesday. Passage would cost the owner of a $100,000 home about $31 a year.

        That money would buy hardware and software to run a digital system meant to eliminate dead spots and allow nearly unlimited radio communications throughout Hamilton County among fire, police and ambulance personnel. The system also would allow Hamilton County officials to communicate with emergency personnel from outside the county.

        Local officials complain that the current system becomes easily overloaded, locks out transmissions and does not allow communication among agencies.

        But not everyone is for paying for the new system with a special levy.

        Most members of the Coali tion Opposed to Additional Spending and Taxes (COAST) agree the current system is a relic that needs to be replaced. But a new tax isn't the way to go, they say, because the county already has the money to buy the equipment.

        Ann Langdon, president of the Delhi Township trustees, said county officials are remodeling the courthouse and expanding office space for the public defender instead of providing for a modern communications system.

        “We absolutely need a new system, but what we don't need is a new tax,” Ms. Langdon said. “If we just prepare and know that we have to pay for this, we can set the money aside. I believe that's the role of county government.”

        But county officials say paying for the new communications system is not their responsibility.

        “Our resources do not include paying for that,” said David Krings, county administrator. “What county government is required to do is maintain a courthouse and provide office space for its departments.”

        County Auditor Dusty Rhodes said there is a $43

        million surplus in this year's budget. And, he said, the county can borrow up to $34.6 million more.

        Those dollars should be used on the communications system, said Tom Brinkman Jr., director of COAST.

        “Why not use the money we've already paid them?” Mr. Brinkman asked. “This system can be bought and paid for in another way. They've already taxed me once, and I don't want them to tax me again.”

        Hamilton County Commissioner John Dowlin said Mr. Rhodes' numbers aren't real.

        The county needs to keep $20 million in the bank to maintain a good bond rating, so interest rates on borrowed money remain low, Mr. Dowlin said.

        In addition, he says, commissioners have spent $6 million of the surplus to reserve the frequencies for the new communications system.

        “Let's assume we borrow to the hilt and spend every penny we have, then what do we do next year if there's a disaster?” Mr. Dowlin asked.

        Emergency officials say the warts on the current communications system were exposed during the April 9 tornado. In some cases, couriers had to hand-deliver messages from the communications center to officers or firefighters in the field.

        “Our communication system lived down to expectations” during the tornado, said Bill Hinkle, director of the Hamilton County Communications Center.

        The county's Republican Party and more than 20 of the county's municipalities have endorsed Issue 3. Buck Niehoff, chairman of the Hamilton County Republican Party, said the need for the new system is obvious.

        But the Hamilton County Democratic Party holds the opposite view.

        “We believe this is a basic governmental service that the public shouldn't be taxed extra for,” said Tim Burke, co-chairman of the party.

        More than half of the $63.7 million would be spent on equipment — building at least two communication towers, and buying dozens of microwave dishes, about 5,000 radios and a computer to run the network.

        Hamilton County would have 20 available channels to radio messages on, as would the city of Cincinnati.

        Several hundred communications could take place over those channels in a short time because the computer would find and instantaneously funnel transmission to the open lines.

        Greg Wenz, operations director at the Hamilton County Emergency Communications Center, said the money would be well-spent.

        “We're in radio hell here in Hamilton County,” Mr. Wenz said. “Hills and valleys are very difficult areas to cover. This (new) system will not only cover the entire area, but it uses the pool of channels very effectively because the computer takes advantage of every second of open lines.”

        In addition to the communications system, the tax money would buy mobile data terminals (MDTs) for fire and ambulance services and lay the groundwork for installation of an automatic vehicle locator (AVL) system for police cars.

        MDTs are computers that would be mounted in firetrucks and ambulances, containing information such as building diagrams and any hazardous materials stored inside. Similar units were purchased for police cars with the $21.8 million CLEAR levy, which passed in 1998.

        AVLs are radar tracking devices that would allow the communications center to locate any on-duty police car in the county.


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