Communication System offering radio control to County 911 board tonight
by Brian Anderson
banderson@annistonstar.com
May 15, 2013 | 3694 views |  0 comments | 17 17 recommendations | email to a friend | print
Calhoun and Talladega counties’ primary source of first-responder communication might be headed toward a breakdown if a last-ditch effort to save the system fails.

Thursday night at the meeting of the Calhoun County 911 Board of Directors, a Calhoun County Commission-appointed committee will suggest that County 911 take control of the 800 megahertz radio system currently maintained by the Alabama Regional Communication System.

And if it doesn’t, Mike Fincher said, he’s not sure what’s going to happen.

It wasn’t supposed to have to come to this, said Fincher, who serves on the 911 Board as well as on the board of directors for the Communication System. When the Regional Communication System was set up under state law in 2011, the plan was to eventually be self-sustaining. User fees would get the board up and running and pay for day-to-day operations while it looked towards securing tax dollars for a future revenue stream.

“We spent a year drafting this bill,” Fincher said, about legislation which would have raised property taxes in Calhoun and Talladega counties to fund the system’s upgrade. “When that didn’t work out we had to look toward other options.”

Giving control to the 911 Board was seen as a reasonable course because, Fincher said, the 911 Board has something the Communication System does not — a credit line.

“We’re using the 911 Board as leverage,” he said, explaining that the 911 Board has means to secure a loan or bond to borrow money for a system upgrade. “The idea isn’t to use their money.”

User fees generated around $750,000 in the Communication System’s first year, Fincher said, but it’s not enough to finance a system upgrade estimated to cost $4 million.

Matt Lowery, chairman of the 911 Board, said he didn’t know enough about the proposed transition to know if it was in the board’s interest to take over the system, but as an Anniston firefighter, he said, he relies on the system every day.

“Someone has to take over that system,” Lowery said. “If we’re the only entity that can do it, then we might have to do it.”

The 800 MHz system was set up in the 1990s as a way for local agencies to communicate with each other in the event of emergencies arising from the chemical weapons stockpile the U.S. Army maintained in Anniston. When the last chemical weapons were destroyed, federal funding for the system went away.

The Communication System hoped a bill introduced in the most recent legislative session in Montgomery would have provided the $4 million needed for a complete system overhaul through a property tax increase in Calhoun and Talladega counties. Sen. Del Marsh, R-Anniston, the Senate president pro tempore, said he wouldn’t support the bill, effectively killing the measure.

Much as it did with the failed legislation, the Communication System is now relying heavily on the hope the 911 Board takes the 800 MHz system off its hands. Fincher said there’s every reason to believe the plan will work, as three members of the 911 Board, including himself, were part of the committee to suggest the transfer.

“If they don’t, we’ll be right back where we are now,” Fincher said. “We have to find another way, because this is a valuable public safety system and it can’t go away.”

Staff writer Brian Anderson: 256-235-3546. On Twitter @BAnderson_Star.
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