BY CHUCK VANDENBERG
LEE COUNTY – Lee County Board Chairman Ron Fedler is hoping to put a $5.7 million digital public safety upgrade in front of voters.
At Tuesday’s regular meeting of the Board of Supervisors, Fedler said the expense of the upgrade is too high for him to feel good about the board making the decision.
The board can approve bonding for the money because it falls under emergency services, and if the public is opposed to the bonding, individuals can gather signatures and petition the board for a special election to approve borrowing the money.
“I’m not saying we don’t need this and I think we do,” Fedler said.
“But look at what’s happening in the economy. We have a tremendous amount of retired people living on a limited income and they pay taxes and if those keep going up too much we could end up putting them in a very serious financial situation.”
Fort Madison Fire Chief Joey Herren said he pitched the upgrade and its cost to city councils throughout the county and he said all of those public bodies have provided letters of support for the upgrade.
Fedler said he hadn’t heard of nor seen any letters. Herren said he handed the letters to the supervisors at the meeting.
Supevisor Gary Folluo said the county needs to deal with this now, or they will deal with it later.
“Dealing with digital radios, I don’t know what price you put on someone’s life, but I tend not to go there. And I tend to always err on the side of safety and safety costs money,” Folluo said.
Supervisor Rick Larkin asked Brian Flynn, a Motorola representative, what other people around the country have been doing to pay for the upgrades.
Motorola provided a proposal under a request from the 911 board, and is the provider poised to handle the upgrades if and when the financing has been secured.
Flynn said all the other counties Motorola has worked with paid for the upgrades with bonds.
“To your point, over the last five years or so as the ISICS (Iowa Statewide Interoperable Communications System) statewide has been built out, several counties have done exactly what your doing,” Flynn said.
“It is bonding for that amount. It will never be, nor has it ever been, in the budget to pay for something like this. That’s a bunch of pancakes being flipped and it won’t happen.”
On Thursday, the E911 Board approved a $600,000 payment to the Public Safety Answering Point (PSAP) board to offset a projected $6.3 million cost to the project. That brings the bonded amount down to $5.7 million. The total amount being financed could get closer to the $6 million mark if engineering costs for the third phase of the project are factored in.
Fedler said the county has also recently upped jail staffing, repaired jail showers, and just took out $1 million in bonds to pay for new jail cameras and additional maintenance work in other county facilities.
Lee County Sheriff Stacy Weber said most of those repairs are maintenance repairs and the some of the work was caused by improper planning during construction.
“I appreciate these repairs were done in my facility, but the showers should have been built right in the first place,” Weber said. “The camera system is under the maintenance budget which falls to Auditor Denise Fraise and she’s said these things need done.”
Fedler said in his eight years on the board he has been very supportive of law enforcement and said the comments aren’t popular, but need to be brought up.
“I agree with everything you say and everything that is needed. The problem is $5.7 million is all taxpayers dollars and we’ve never had anything come up as a special item that the cost has been this much money,” Fedler said.
“I really think that even though we, according to (Budget Director) Cindy (Renstrom), can approve this as an emergency item and don’t have to let taxpayers decide, I’m just not in favor of not letting them decide. Then it’s really final and we have the approval.”
County Auditor Denise Fraise said the item will be put on the Nov. 17 Supervisor’s agenda for a possible vote. It couldn’t go on next Tuesday’s agenda as that will be a canvass of general election ballots.
Weber said currently the county can get through to dispatch or other deputies about 35% of the time out in the county. The new upgrade would guarantee 95% coverage throughout the county and would replace and upgrade all radios and support infrastructure.
“It’s gotten so bad fire trucks in Keokuk at a scene can’t talk to firefighters in a basement of a home. It’s real life problem shared with me by the Keokuk Fire Chief,” Weber said.
Herren said he had a situation Tuesday night where a resident passed out at City Hall following the Fort Madison City Council meeting and he couldn’t communicate with anyone on his body radio. Someone else in attendance had to call 911 with a cellphone.