County Called to Task on Funding for Communications System
Southern Pines Fire Chief Hampton Williams called the county commissioners to task Tuesday for agreeing last month to approach municipalities to share a portion of the $4.5 million bill to implement VIPER, a narrow band emergency communications system.
The unfunded mandate, handed down by the the Federal Communications (FCC), must be operational by Jan, 1, 2013.
Williams said the board's decision "came as a total surprise to the majority" of the county's emergency responders.
"It was a complete reversal from what we were led to believe," he said. "VIPER might not have been our first choice, but we bought into it, even though a lot of us had already spent money preparing for the narrow-band mandate. We were well on our way to being compliant until the switch to VIPER.
"Now, at zero hour, you turn around and say we have to buy radios."
Williams said he had purposely removed funding for the mandated radios from his budget for the past two years.
"In our opinion, if you force the municipalities to fund their own radios ... then you're opening the door for interoperability to be lacking. You're going to have a hodgepodge of radios like we do now," he said. "We are basically asking you to fund 100 percent of this initiative. We need some direction on which way we should go ... hopefully in a timely manner."
The estimated cost for the county's emergency responders to purchase the necessary equipment — mobiles, radios, pagers and other system upgrades — is just shy of $3 million.
Commissioner Nick Picerno suggested a trip to Washington, D.C., to ask the North Carolina congressional delegation to push for an extension.
"Personally, I think we need to arrange that trip," Picerno said. "It probably should have been put together a year ago. We're a little behind."
Picerno and the rest of the board want to find a solution that does not involve a tax increase.
"We have no interest in increasing taxes," Commissioner Tim Lea said.
Picerno said there wasn't enough information to make a decision Tuesday, a sentiment shared by Board Chairman Larry Caddell.
"We're not going to solve the problem today," Caddell said.
VIPER (Voice Interoperability Plan for Emergency Responders) is managed by the State Highway Patrol for all responders across the state.
The FCC issued the changeover mandate because of recent increases in emergency communications channels and the need to keep the airways as open as possible because of growth in population and use of emergency communications equipment.
The board tabled the issue until its Feb. 21 meeting, but will likely call a special meeting in the interim to discuss a solution.
In other action Tuesday, the board tweaked membership on the county's Land-Use Plan Steering Committee by adding eight people to committee and turning six current members and one new one into ex-officio members, who can participate in the process but not vote.
The new members are John Blue, Sandy Stewart, Carolyn Mealing, Terry Bryant, Lewin Blue, David Allred, Archie Kelly and Debra Ensminger, the county's director of planning and development.
Ensminger, Ron Maness, Linda Gore and David Gould are all county employees. The other ex-offico members are the mayors of Aberdeen, Pinehurst and Southern Pines — Betsy Mofield, Nancy Fiorillo and David McNeill, respectively.
See Friday's edition of The Pilot for more details about the meeting.
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