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City Council delays upgrade to 800 trunking system

SALISBURY — While City Council members said they still support 911 consolidation with Rowan County, they had too many questions Tuesday night to vote for a $2.5 million equipment upgrade that would allow the merger to move forward.
The council tabled the equipment upgrade until Jan. 3, with members Maggie Blackwell and Brian Miller agreeing to meet Thursday with city staff to better understand the large purchase, which is not included in this year’s budget.
Council members expressed support for 911 dispatch consolidation, which has been controversial, and said they want firefighters and police officers to have proper equipment.
But Blackwell expressed frustration that council members were asked to vote for a large expenditure they didn’t fully understand, with the safety of firefighters and police officers at hand.
“That’s not fair to us,” she said.
The $2.5 million 800 trunking system upgrade, plus new radios that could cost up to $1.6 million, were supposed to come up during City Council’s annual retreat in February and appear in next year’s budget.
But the issue was presented Tuesday because the new consolidated 911 telecommunications center is at a standstill until the city upgrades the 800 trunking system, said John Sofley, assistant city manager for finance.
Rowan County, which invested $5 million this summer to improve radio service, can’t purchase additional 911 dispatch consoles until the city’s upgrade, Sofley said.
The county’s new satellite sites won’t work without the upgrade, and Motorola will no longer support the city’s analog equipment.
Initially, City Manager Doug Paris encouraged council members to move forward with the purchase.
Rowan County “is fully beholden to the city” and would be hamstrung if the city did not upgrade the equipment, Paris said.
“Our goal has been to cooperate,” he said.
When Blackwell asked if the city has any opportunity to share the expense, Sofley and Paris said they will consider increasing the monthly fee that Salisbury charges users for network access. But that won’t generate new revenue, they said, noting the fund operates at a loss each year.
Paris said he has talked to Rowan County Manager Gary Page about the possibility of sharing some county sales tax revenue dedicated to the public safety radio system to help pay for the city’s upgrades.
When Blackwell suggested pursuing those talks before the city agrees to spend $2.5 million, Paris disagreed.
Although the city could “play hardball” with the county, delaying the purchase “would jeopardize the safety of our firefighters and police officers, and I don’t want to go there,” he said.
Council members asked for more time.
“My gut tells me another two weeks to get a handle on this would not hurt,” Miller said.
Sofley said missing Tuesday’s deadline, which already had been extended for the city by the county, was worth “several hundred thousand dollars.”
But Blackwell said the city’s proposal was too murky. The annual principal payment for telecommunications equipment debt could nearly double to $403,000, but Sofley said it would be less.
The water and sewer fund will chip in to help pay for the upgrades, but it wasn’t clear how much. And a schedule of probable costs didn’t match up, Blackwell said.
“We want to see line items matching up with line items,” she said.
With three unanswered questions, Blackwell said she also would ask for a two-week delay.
“I don’t like being put in this position,” she said.
Sofley pointed out that Motorola would give the city a better price on equipment purchased before Dec. 31.
“Are we sure of that?” Blackwell said.
Ultimately, Sofley and Paris changed their tune and agreed the issue could wait two more weeks.
“We want you to feel comfortable with our large purchases,” Paris said.
Blackwell apologized for holding up the process and said she had done her homework, holding up 60-plus pages of documents.
“In terms of the presentation, that’s when I began to see some gaps that I thought I had understood,” she said.
The city is trying to save wherever it can, Sofley said. Some non-public safety employees, like Parks and Recreation staff, may be able to use cell phones instead of radios, Sofley said.
Some money has been set aside for radio replacements, and the city will not raise the property tax rate to pay for telecommunications upgrades, he said.
911 consolidation will save the city more than $5 million over 10 years.

Contact reporter Emily Ford at 704-797-4264.

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