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County Council, January 28

Problems plague County’s digital radio system
Consultant to be hired to review Motorola’s proposed remedy
Warwick Jones

All is not well in the implementation of the County’s new Digital Radio system. Staff wants to hire a consultant to review Motorola’s plan to rectify the problems. The County signed a contract with Motorola in 2005 for its entire analog system to be converted to digital. The new P225 system was identical to that being used by the Federal Government and other national entities.

According to a hand out at last night’s Finance Meeting, problems began to surface nationally in 2008 about the system and in the County’s system, in December 2008. The technical problems experienced nationally were:

Voice intelligibility at fire scenes because of interference and background noise
Overall reduced radio coverage compared with analog systems
Inaudible and dropped radio transmission

Motorola sent in a study team
Motorola dispatched a technical team from January to May 2009 to address the problems experienced by the County. “Motorola’s final analysis concluded that further improvements would require modification to our current network - and it engineered a long rage plan to allow a complete County -wide solution. The design uses our current 8 towers and required the addition of another 8 towers”.

The program will be split into 3 phases: Phase I will focus on East of the Cooper and Coastal with 2 new towers in Mount Pleasant and one in Folly Beach. The North Charleston tower will be relocated. Phase 2 One new tower in Ravenel and a mini ASR tower on Edisto Island. Phase 3 New tower to improve coverage in McClellanville and Awendaw and another for the NW region of the County. The Summerville tower is to be upgraded.

Staff wants to hire a consultant to review Motorola’s plan. Following the evaluation, and assuming it is positive, the County will have to consider a funding source. And that’s just part of the rub.

The challenges and the rub
In the staff presentation, the challenges were highlighted. First relates to zoning for the new IOP tower, and the heightening and lighting of the Folly Beach, Six Mile Road, and the Highway 17/ Sewee Towers. Then there is the projected increase in the radio user fee. It is currently $25 but staff estimate that an increase of 60% may be needed. And the biggest rub, the County millage for debt service for capital costs could rise by 0.9 mils.

What Council members thought of all this is not known. Council went into executive session and on completion, simply voted to hire a consultant. We confess to surprise as to the extent of the problems. We feel there should have been more transparency in the revelation of the problems. We also note that the blue sheet circulated to County members referred to previous discussions amongst Council member but in executive session. As we have noted before, executive sessions may be needed to address issues before Council but for the County, there seems too many!!

Caw Caw Interpretive Center to expand by 60%
The Caw Caw Interpretive Center, administered by the County Parks and Recreation Commission (PRC) just grew by 60%. The Finance Committee at its meeting yesterday approved the purchase of a 402 acre parcel of land that adjoins the Interpretive Center, to be financed by funds from the County Greenbelt Bank and from the PRC. The 402 tract, which includes 359 acres of marshland, will be incorporated into the 652 acre Caw Caw property. The cost of the parcel is $1.7 million and funding of $1.45 million will come from the Bank and $250,000 from the PRC.

Committee members were generally in favor of the purchase but Council member Darby wondered why the Town of Ravenel did not want to own the park. The answer was suggested by Council member Rawl in that the Town was very much aware of the cost of running and maintaining the potential park, and did not want to bear it. Mr. Tom O’Rourke Executive Director of the PRC also indicated that though the new land would be incorporated into Caw Caw, there would be some features added such as facilities for fishing, crabbing and picnicking. Also the park would be made available to the Town for special events.

The deal was a win-win situation for Ravenel. It may not own the park but it will have a special relationship that allows it to use it on certain occasions without having to bear any of the maintenance costs. But more importantly, the purchase enhances what some of us believe to be Charleston’s premier park, available to all of the County’s citizens for only a nominal fee.

Economic Development team to be relocated
The request by the Economic Development Department to relocate met more opposition that we expected. The Department argued that it needed to move to a location outside the County offices in North Charleston. It said it was often involved in confidential discussions with corporations and many did not want even their identity to be disclosed. Such confidentiality was not possible in the heavily trafficked Lonnie Hamilton Building. To grease a decision, the Department said that it did not need any special funding, at least for this year. It could draw on surplus funds from the “5% Fund.”

What is the 5% Fund?
Some Council member became wide awake with the mention of the 5% fund. They had never heard of it! As explained by Mr. Steve Dykes the head of the Department, Council decided some year ago to take 5% of the property tax money derived from the County’s industrial parks and put it into a special fund. These moneys funded the department and also created a small surplus, presently about $300,000. This surplus would be used to finance the initial coast of the move. But Mr. Dykes added that the department needed to expand and to add more staff. He was looking for the 5% to be raised to 7.5% next year. But it most likely could be reduced to 5% some years thereafter as fees derived from the Boeing expansion began to flow.

Was there an alternative?
Council member McKeown wondered whether there was another alternative. In the difficult times of present, he did not like committing to a 7 year lease on premises to house the expanded department. County Administrator O'Neal endorsed the department’s request and added that it was also a matter on image. The County had a high stature in the state, particularly after the Boeing deal and it was befitting that the department has it own premises. He said most other Counties in the state housed their Economic Development departments in facilities outside the main offices.

Council member Rawl made a short speech suggesting that the Economic Development Department knew what was best for it. He would support the request but the Department had better deliver. Council approved the move with Council members Schweers and Mc Keown opposed.

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