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Hernando commissioners weigh Motorola offer to replace aging communication system

BROOKSVILLE — Bill Kicklighter was back in front of the Hernando County Commission on Tuesday, six months after he put out an SOS about the county's aging radio communications system.

The need to replace the 17-year-old analog system used by just about every county agency is more dire now than it was in March, said Kicklighter, the chief administrative officer for the Hernando Sheriff's Office.

This time, though, Kicklighter came with a limited-time offer from Motorola to complete the first phase of the project. Now it will be up to commissioners to decide whether they want to take the offer and how to pay for it.

The most pressing need is still the microwave system that allows the county's three towers to communicate with each other, Kicklighter said. There are no spare parts left. The same goes for the consoles dispatchers use and the alarm system that alerts operators to a component failure at the tower sites.

Technicians were scrambling over the weekend to make repairs after one tower malfunctioned, Kicklighter said.

"And that's not an unusual occurrence anymore, unfortunately," he said.

The new nationwide standard for interoperable radios is called Project 25. Motorola can begin the upgrade process by phasing in critical infrastructure instead of replacing the entire system at once, including radios. That would cost some $13 million, Kicklighter said.

Instead, Kicklighter recommended replacing the infrastructure at a cost of $4.5 million and paying for new radios as departments need them in the coming years. The county's existing radios would work with the new infrastructure and with any new radios.

"We want to be able to go down a path that doesn't make those radios we've invested money in become boat anchors," he said.

The county will have to later spend $2.2 million to replace antennas, lines and base stations. The cost to replace individual radios as old ones stop working will reach several million dollars.

The county is not required to put the project out to bid because of the radio compatibility issue, said chief procurement officer Russ Wetherington.

If the county did put the project out to bid, Motorola would probably win anyway, Kicklighter said. In the unlikely event another vendor won, he said, the entire communications system would have to be replaced at one time.

Motorola is offering Hernando County the same rates other counties and agencies throughout the state got through competitive bids, Kicklighter noted.

The communications giant offered to finance the $4.5 million cost of the first phase over five years, with no interest for the first two years and 1.95 percent interest in the final three years. The first of four $1.15 million payments would be due two years after the contract is signed.

If the county doesn't do the financing through Motorola, the company would provide a 5 percent discount, or nearly $231,000.

Either way, if the deal is finalized by Dec. 18, the county gets two years of free maintenance on the system, a savings of about $327,000.

The county would start slightly ahead. The Sheriff's Office has about $413,000 socked away for system maintenance and upgrades, Kicklighter said.

The Sheriff's Office hasn't had luck applying for federal grants to pay for the system but will keep trying, he said.

Already facing an expected budget deficit for 2013-14, commissioners agreed the project won't happen without finding more cash.

"We don't have it, so we have to come up with some kind of funding source," Commissioner Nick Nicholson said.

One option is to tap the county's $7.5 million line of credit approved a few weeks ago, budget manager George Zoettlein told the board.

Another is to increase the county's communications tax on phone bills from the current 1.4 percent to 1.84 percent. The move would add 44 cents to a phone bill of $100, but bring in an additional $400,000 a year to the general fund, Zoettlein said.

County Administrator Len Sossamon recommended a strategy that would take advantage of Motorola's offer and use the line of credit and tax revenue.

Commissioners will review options at a meeting slated for Tuesday.

Reach Tony Marrero at tmarrero@tampabay.com or (352) 848-1431. On Twitter: @TMarreroTimes and @HernandoTimes.

Hernando commissioners weigh Motorola offer to replace aging communication system 12/04/12 [Last modified: Wednesday, December 5, 2012 1:33am]
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