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Hernando sheriff's radio system outdated, but county lacks funds

BROOKSVILLE — In early 2010, Bill Kicklighter stood at a lectern in front of the County Commission and flipped through a PowerPoint presentation.

Kicklighter, chief administrative officer at the Hernando Sheriff's Office, paused as a slide showed an early version of a cell phone, a bulky television and an outdated computer monitor.

Imagine trying to service or repair those outdated relics, Kicklighter told the commission, and you have an idea of how the Sheriff's Office is struggling to maintain the aging analog radio system used by just about every county agency and department that requires dispatch services.

Kicklighter estimated the cost at $16 million to phase in a new digital system over five years, and hoped that grant money would cover much of the expense.

Now the equipment is two years older, and little progress has been made toward a plan to address the need.

"I don't want to say the sky is falling and that it needs to be done today," said Sheriff Al Nienhuis. But "it's something we can't ignore."

The goal is to convert to a new industry standard for interoperable public safety communications systems called Project 25. The five-year window to start phasing in equipment is now down to three years, Kicklighter said in an interview last week.

There are backup components that ensure communication isn't lost if any of the main pieces fail, but that ability becomes limited as more time passes, Kicklighter said.

"Every time we have a failure of a critical component, we get a little more nervous because it's taking longer to get things repaired or replaced," he said.

The most pressing need is still the microwave system that allows towers to communicate with each other, Kicklighter said. There are very few spare parts left, and a significant failure could cripple the entire radio system.

The same goes for dispatch consoles and the alarm system that alerts operators to a component failure.

A lesser but still growing concern are the controllers, the brains of the system that allow users to share channels, and the radios themselves.

The Sheriff's proposed budget includes about $600,000 for maintenance and repair of the current system, and about $250,000 in capital dollars for a new system. That's a fraction of the estimated $4 million cost for the phase of the radio upgrade plan.

The hope is to use that money to land grants that require matching dollars. The Sheriff's Office hasn't had success but continues to apply, Kicklighter said.

There aren't really any other options for money from the federal government other than those grants, said U.S. Rep. Rich Nugent, a Spring Hill Republican who served as Hernando Sheriff for 10 years. The best Nugent can do is write letters of support for those applications.

Facing a roughly $7 million shortfall for the coming budget year, the county simply can't afford to do anything for the radio system right now, commissioners said. Commissioner Dave Russell told Nienhuis as much during a budget workshop last week.

Russell recalled in an interview how Hernando deputies in the 1980s had to stop and borrow a phone to communicate when the radio system went down.

"I haven't heard that we've reached that point, and if you don't have the money, you don't have the money," Russell said.

One option, at least on paper, is to tap the $7 million remaining of the funding that had been set aside for a new judicial center. That could be unwise, especially considering the county may be on the hook to the state for millions of dollars worth of Medicaid reimbursements if a pending lawsuit fails.

Nienhuis says he doesn't plan in the near term to make a specific suggestion to tap the judicial fund.

"I want to make sure they have all the information they need to make a decision as to whether to prioritize it and where the money comes from," he said.

Commissioner James Adkins, a member of the board since 2008, said he would like an update from Nienhuis.

"Convince us something needs to happen," Adkins said, "and how we could phase it in."

Tony Marrero can be reached at (352) 848-1431 or tmarrero@tampabay.com.

Hernando sheriff's radio system outdated, but county lacks funds 06/09/12 [Last modified: Saturday, June 9, 2012 1:53pm]

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