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Council reviews options to solve tower situation

Wednesday, June 21, 2006

Concern about the number of radio antennas perched on top of the Putnam County Courthouse has led to approval for a study on its overcrowded radio tower.

The Putnam County Council on Tuesday encouraged 911 Director Dave Costin to go ahead with work by J&K Communications to see if any of the antennas serving 23 county agencies can be relocated off the tower to lessen the chance of damage during a storm or other disaster.

Continuing a report that began Monday with the county commissioners, Costin said he dispatches 13 fire departments, eight police agencies and two ambulance services from antennas located on the tower. Also located on the tower are data links for seven departments and the airport homing beacon alarm.

The reason for the variety of antennas, Costin explained, is that the 911 dispatch system was made to adapt to the radio systems used by the various departments.

"It was cheaper for me to get the antenna that worked for each department rather than have them spend money on new radio systems," Costin explained.

But now the concern is that the load on the tower could at some time in the near future cause the structure to collapse, or allow for the build-up of ice during the winter and lead to failure of the system.

Costin said the initial recommendation is to do a study of what could be moved off the tower onto the roof of the courthouse itself. Lowering some of the antenna, however, would degrade the radio signals. Another option is to relocate some of the antenna to the tower at the county highway department southwest of the city. But that would be a costly move and require additional dedicated phone lines from the tower to the courthouse.

In response to an inquiry about using area cell phone towers, Costin said there are not many with enough height to do the job. The towers are also not located where he needs to send the radio signals.

Costin had estimated to the commissioners that constructing a new tower and control shack on the county highway property would run around $140,000 in construction, with additional costs for phone lines and equipment taking the cost close to $200,000.

Council member Larry Parker told fellow members Mitch Proctor, Darrel Thomas, Richard Lyon, Keith Berry, Jay Fogle and Donald Walton that the commissioners discussed that option, but said they would rather consider a new emergency operations center that would house the whole 911 dispatch system.

The cost of that project has been figured at just less than $2 million. Cost said the actual construction cost of that building is $1.1 million, while the additional cost is for technology and the move of the dispatch center. But the total cost would also include a new 250-foot radio tower.

Council member Berry asked if the county now has more liability by recognizing that the courthouse tower could cause future problems.

Costin said the county's insurance carrier has indicated as long as the county maintains a good faith effort to rectify the problem, any damage that occurs from a tower failure should be covered.

Council member Lyon pointed out that the lifespan of the tower has a known limit.

"We all know how long it's been there," he said, "and that it will eventually have to come off there."

The funding of the project, however, is a major hold-up. The county has no additional money for such a project in its budget.

While some groups have pointed to the county's Hazardous Waste Fund, which has a balance of more than $2 million, the use of that money is restricted by state law. Council attorney Scott Hoff said there are some discussions with State Rep. Andy Thomas to introduce legislation to get the law changed to allow expenditure of some of the Hazardous Waste Fund on capital expenditures for emergency services. But that change could be a year in coming.

Putnam is the only county in the state with a hazardous waste landfill, and the only county affected by the current legislation. Money in the fund is collected from tipping fees paid by waste haulers.

Hoff said he has checked with the State Board of Accounts on using some of that fund now for the project, and he was told that such an expenditure currently could not be justified based on the legal use of the funds. But, if only a percentage of the project was paid for from the Hazardous Waste Fund, that might not be a problem, he said.

Costin suggested that about 23 percent of the emergency operations center project could be justified for a HWF expenditure of about $400,000 up front.

But Hoff cautioned that it would be a big speculation to go ahead and spend that money out of the fund on the chance that the state might approve it.

Council member Thomas said until the state legislature meets with a bill to change the HWF rules, the county has time to get some plans together to solve the radio tower problem. He asked for options that include building the emergency operations center but excluding a training room, as well as a two-story building to cut construction costs.

Thomas said he is well aware of the dilemma faced by 911 Dispatch and its inadequate facilities for vital equipment and the radio tower. The technology for the 911 system is housed piecemeal around the courthouse in closets, under stairwells, in the attic and the basement.

"I've been in the basement of the courthouse and the attic, and it scares me to death the way we're put together," Thomas said of the 911 system. "If the average citizen saw that, they'd say, 'That's us?'"

Meanwhile, in other business, the council:

-- Heard a report on the capital projects fund plan from Alice Greenburg, director of the Putnam County Public Library. She reported the fund supports computers and technology, equipment, building improvements and maintenance of the library's bookmobile. The cap on the tax rate is .95 cents per $100 of assessed valuation. It will raise about $136,215 this year for the fund. The council approved the plan.

-- Heard a request from the Putnam County Soil and Water Conservation District that due to funding changes, the office is requesting that the county pay the salary of a full-time and part-time office member. The office has been informed it also must pay rent for its office space, based on its employee count. The proposed 2007 budget will be a savings to the county of about $5,000.

-- Approved an additional appropriation of $100,000 from the county's Hazardous Waste Fund for the purchase of a fire truck for the Russellville Fire Department. The total cost of the truck is estimated at $155,000. The additional appropriation represents about 65 percent of the cost to replace a 1972 model with mechanical and compliance issues.

-- Approved an additional appropriation and amended salary ordinance for $2,000 from the juvenile probation user fee for a court reporter for juvenile cases heard in Putnam Circuit Court.

-- Approved an additional appropriation of $50,000 for the Sheriff's Department from the Department of Correction money to pay expenses at the jail, and an additional appropriation of $165,000 from DOC reimbursement to cover payroll for part-time employees.

-- Approved funds of $140,000 from the cumulative jail fund for repairs to the jail roof. The new roof is supposed to have a 30-year lifespan.

-- Noted they will establish the times and dates for budget hearings and budget adoption schedule at the next council meeting.

The county council regularly meets at 6:30 p.m. on the third Tuesday of each month at the courthouse annex, 209 W. Liberty St., Greencastle. The meetings are open to the public.

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