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Counties discuss funding for communication upgrades

By Emily Ford
eford@salisburypost.com
Surrounding counties faced with upgrading their emergency communications systems by 2013 don’t know how much it will cost and haven’t made specific plans to pay for it.
“We haven’t had that conversation yet,” Davidson County Manager Robert Hyatt. “Rowan County may be ahead of us.”
Rowan County has placed a one-quarter cent sales tax increase on the Nov. 3 ballot to help pay for the radio upgrades.
“Emergency communications is still researching it,” said Andy Lucas, Stanly County manager. “You may be a step ahead of us as far as putting a defined amount of money on it to upgrade.”
Rowan County is ahead of its neighbors because it also needs to pay for a new jail annex. The sales tax increase would generate $20 million over 10 years for both public safety projects.
“The jail is the more pressing matter,” Rowan County Manager Gary Page said. “We have four years on the radios, but the jail is pushing us to do it now.”
Rowan’s downtown jail is 100 prisoners over capacity, and the state threatened to close it.
The county will borrow $20 million this spring and begin work on the jail annex soon after. If voters reject the sales tax increase next week, the county will make plans to lay off workers or cut services, Page said.
“We wanted to know how we were going to pay for it before we borrowed the money,” he said.
Rowan officials estimate upgrading radios and building transmitters will cost $12 million.
Surrounding county managers don’t think their price tag will be as high.
For the most part, it appears Stanly County’s equipment is compatible with the digital conversion, Lucas said. Stanly uses a different system than Rowan, so a direct comparison is not possible.
“My guess is our board will do it pay-as-you-go,” he said.
Davidson County will need upgrades but has already purchased some radios with a Homeland Security grant, Hyatt said.
Rowan County plans to apply for similar grants this spring, Page said.
Hyatt said he suspects volunteer fire departments in Davidson will upgrade their radios with money from fire district taxes.
Rowan County will provide at least 10 radios to every volunteer fire department to avoid a property tax increase in the fire districts, Page said.
Cabarrus County hasn’t made specific upgrade plans yet because the county may work with Kannapolis and Concord on the project, Cabarrus County Manager John Day said.
While Cabarrus has considered putting a sales tax increase on the ballot as well, the proceeds would go to pay off school debt, not to radio upgrades, Day said.
In smaller Davie County, the digital conversion “is not a huge issue for us,” manager Beth Dirks said.
Davie uses an older system than Rowan. Money for upgrades likely will come from Davie’s regular budget, Dirks said.

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