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Izard County approves financial plan for new communications system

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Izard County Judge Richard Sherrell says "a miracle deal" should soon allow the county's outdated and unreliable communications system to be replaced.

At the August 2 Izard County Quorum Court meeting, Justices of the Peace approved an appropriation of $68,050 to be used toward the purchase of a communications tower and a building to house related equipment.

The current communications system uses old technology that does not reach to all areas of the county and it has totally shut down during some emergency situations.

"Initially we thought it would cost $300,000 to $350,000 for a new system, and we could not find any grants to help pay for it," said Sherrill.

Sherrill now believes the new "narrow band" system, which must be in place by January 1, 2013 to avoid large fines, will cost around $165,000.

"A company called Pegasus Tower responded to our request for proposals," said Sherrill. "It had a cellular tower in Mississippi it had to remove because of a road widening project. A portable building designed for cellular phone use came with it. It offered to sell the tower and building and set everything up for $155,000."

The problem of how to pay for the project remained an obstacle but, last month, the county judge finally landed a meeting with Governor Mike Beebe.

When Sherill and Office of Emergency Management Director Bill Beebe traveled to Little Rock, it didn't look promising.

"Right off, the Governor said, 'You realize that we've got no money available,'" said Sherrill, who added Beebe wanted to know how much the county had to help pay for the project.

Sherrill told the Governor the county was desperate, because its communication system had failed several times in emergency situations. So, he was ready to try a "hillbilly solution:" put up a 100 foot antenna tower, supported by guy wires, which would be only minimally better than the current system.

"By the end of the meeting, the Governor said he would contact Butch Calhoun, the director of Rural Development and see if there was anything that office could do to help," said Sherrill.

By the end of the day, Calhoun was in touch with Sherrill with the news that some new grant money was coming available in August, and Izard County may qualify for $50,000.

White River Planning later informed Sherrill that the county may also qualify for $23,000 in USDA grants, if it can show it has money allocated to support the project.

Suddenly, the prospects for a modern communications system were improving.

"Brad Broadus, from Pegasus Tower, had moved to the Dolph area from Mississippi, and he was willing to work with us on trying to lower the cost," said Sherrill. "We said we could cut costs by preparing the site for the tower and the building. He agreed, because he said this was his county now and he wanted it to have the best communication system possible."

Through the help of the North Arkansas Electric Co-op, costs were lowered further when the county received a grant to purchase a generator and battery back up system to keep communications working if power goes out.

"Are you sure this will fix it?" Justice Glendon Everett asked, as the Quorum Court considered the $68,050 appropriation Sherrill said was needed.

OEM Director Bill Bebee explained the tower-a stand alone tower designed to withstand hurricane force winds-is worth much more than the price being offered.

Beebe added, besides holding the county's communications equipment, up to three cellular companies can lease space on the tower.

"I've been told the going rate is $1,000 a month per company," said Beebe, "so the tower should generate some income."

Beebee also explained that his office has a $30,000 grant and the Sheriff's Department has a $16,000 grant, which can be used to buy "fixed items" like radios, wire and other supplies needed to get the new communications system up and running.

The 180-foot tower should cover most of the county. A second, smaller tower may be needed in the Horseshoe Bend area, or the county may be able to place a repeater on the city's water tower.

Bebee estimated the cost for the entire project should be around $165,000.

Area fire departments will be able to use the OEM channel on the tower, as they upgrade to digital radios.

"How do we know we are going to get the grants?"

asked Justice of the Peace Eric Smith.

"We're pretty much guaranteed we are going to get the grants," Judge Sherrill replied.

Sherrill also assured the JPs, "This probably is as good a deal as we're going to get," and the requested $68,050 appropriation was unanimously approved.

"I'm wanting to get this project over to move on to something else," Sherrill told the The News. "I feel like we have a solution now."

In other Quorum Court business:

*Members voted to rescind a 2004 ordinance which requires that county employees make at least $5,000 less than the lowest paid county official. By rescinding the ordinance, elected officials will have more control over the salaries of their employees.

*Members declined to continue to pay the salary of Linda Moser, coordinator of the county's alcohol prevention program. A five year federal grant ran out at the end of June and an application for a new grant will not be decided until October. Justices decided it would be "a bad precedent" to pay an employee with county funds, after a grant runs out.

*Quorum Court put off until later this year a decision on moving its meetings from the first Tuesday of the month to the second Tuesday of the month.

The next Quorum Court meeting will be held on Tuesday, September 6, at 6 p.m. The public is invited.

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