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Funds may squelch deputies' radios

All that stands between the Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office and a new state-of-the-art radio system is about $15-million.

At a special meeting Tuesday, commissioners approved an $18-million bid to replace the sheriff's radio system. With necessary upgrades to county radio towers, the total cost of the new system will run about $19.5-million.

But the system hinges on the county finding enough money to pay for it all.

Assistant County Administrator Ed Hunzeker said about $5-million is available right now from a bond issue and cash reserves. Hunzeker said his office will come up with a plan by March 16 to finance the remaining $15-million.

Hillsborough Sheriff Cal Henderson said the current system is antiquated and inadequate.

"Four years ago we were advised we had the worst channel congestion of any police agency in the entire nation," Henderson said.

Some replacement parts for the present system are no longer available, he said, and a breakdown could shut the entire system down.

"The public safety issues dictate the urgency of this project," he said.

Ericsson GE Mobile Communications was the winning bidder with a digital, 26-channel system. The bid includes seven radio towers, two dispatch centers, and portable equipment for patrol cars, county Fire Department vehicles and county Emergency Medical Services vehicles.

Commissioners did not question the need for a new radio system, but they spent about four hours Tuesday debating the merits of the Ericsson approach.

Motorola, the only rival bidder, filed a protest with the county Monday asking commissioners to reconsider the contract. The Motorola bid came in about $2-million lower than Ericsson's but was rejected because it uses older analog technology as opposed to Ericsson's digital technology.

Ken Graves, an attorney for Motorola, said the county is spending a lot of money on an unproven product. Because Ericsson's digital technology is proprietary, the county could be stuck with an odd-ball system in the future, Graves said.

"Don't buy the Betamax of public safety communications," he said.

Ericsson officials said their system provides superior voice quality and improved range. It also enables police to "encrypt" radio transmissions so they cannot be monitored.

The Ericsson system's unique technology prevents ordinary scanners from monitoring radio transmissions.

Installation of the system will take about a year, sheriff's officials said.