Left Holding Bag On VIPER Funds
Who can blame Southern Pines Fire Chief Hampton Williams and others for calling the Moore County Board of Commissioners to task for what seemed like a switcheroo regarding VIPER?
That ominous-sounding reptilian acronym refers to a communications package that the county has chosen as its way of meeting the requirement for communication systems in the United States to switch from wide band to narrow band by Jan. 1, 2013. The mandate was handed down by the Federal Communications Commission in December 2004.
Williams noted that most emergency responders in Moore County had been "led to believe" over the past two years that the county would handle the $4.5 million VIPER startup costs for all. They were even told to stop buying non-VIPER equipment separately that would have enabled them to meet the FCC mandate on their own.
The Emergency Services Advisory Committee (ESAC) had recommended to the board that the county fund the startup. "We'll find a way to pay for it," was the message that responders repeatedly heard from county officials at the time.
Did We Say 'We'?
The responders interpreted "we" to mean the county. Wrong, it turns out. Last week, County Manager Cary McSwain said "we" meant that everybody would share the cost.
Emergency responders were justifiably flabbergasted at McSwain's response, especially since they had collectively spent more than seven figures since December 2004 preparing for the narrow-band mandate.
"Now, at zero hour, you turn around and say we have to buy (VIPER) radios," Williams said. In other words, at this point more than seven years after the federal mandate, Moore County is saying it has a plan of action but no plan to fund it?
At a special meeting called last week by county commissioners to address the issue, Williams told the board that its decision to ask the county's municipalities to help share the cost was, in effect, double taxation, because property owners in the municipalities generate about 62 percent of the county's annual tax revenues.
"We're all citizens of Moore County," he said.
Ball in County's Court
Commissioner Tim Lea called the ESAC recommendation just that, a recommendation. "It's not binding," he said.
Williams countered that even though VIPER wasn't the "first choice" of most responders, they bought into it to ensure interoperability. "If you don't fund this, you're going to have a huge hodgepodge of radios like we do now," he noted.
While both "sides" of the issue agree that interoperability and public safety are the top priorities, they obviously disagree on the semantics.
The bottom line is that VIPER will save lives by the increased efficiencies and speedier responses that it makes possible. The county needs to buck up and find a way to pay for it, as it said it would.
As we've noted in this space before, whatever pocket the money comes out of, no one can ever place a monetary value on the many lives that will certainly be saved once VIPER becomes operational. Following the county's lead, virtually every police, fire, ambulance and rescue agency in Moore County has agreed to use VIPER.
The county can't leave them holding the bag now.
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