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County communications upgrade hits snag; more money needed

HUDSON -- It looks like St. Croix County will have to borrow at least $25,000 to finish a project to improve communications with various emergency responders.

For the second year in a row, the County Board has agreed that sets of capital projects can't be paid with the current year budget and will be funded through borrowing. Though no vote was taken this week, plans were made to include the most recent communications work in that debt package, which will probably go to the County Board next week.

This year's loan is expected to be up to $310,000. Last year the county borrowed $663,274 from the State Trust Fund to pay for new radio consoles, the cellular E911 project, the jail water system and the county's share of the fire repeater project.

As the county was in the last stages of two projects to update and improve emergency communications, an unforeseen problem arose and departments are falling short of the money needed to make the project work, reported Chuck Mehls, chairman of the Emergency Management and Communications Committee.

Emergency Communications Director Casey Swetlik said a grant covered 75% of the costs of the project that involved re-channeling 567 mobile, portable and base radios throughout the county.

He said the attempt to convert all the fire bases from a simplex to a repeater format failed, and it was discovered that extra engineering is needed due to interference discovered during the conversion.

A problem with the old system, said Swetlik, was that while dispatchers could hear communications from individual departments clearly, when two departments happened to radio simultaneously, the sounds were garbled. When several departments are out on calls at the same time, the problem is most pronounced, said Swetlik.

The solution, he said, was to switch to a repeater format.

When an antenna is used for many purposes, filters are used to prevent interference, said Swetlik. He said an engineering study indicated that there shouldn't be a problem with the new duplexer filters, but after the 567 radios were re-channeled and the switch was flipped, interference was discovered.

Swetlik said the situation is creating hardships for fire departments and emergency medical services because while the system is working, it's piecemeal and the repeater system isn't functioning.

Now, he said, all the new duplexer filters must be removed, sent to the factory, retuned and re-installed.

The estimated cost is $5,000 for each of the five sites -- Hudson, New Richmond, Glenwood City, Hammond and River Falls.

If the duplexers can't be retuned, the cost will be $42,500, said Swetlik. He said there's no way to tell if the retuning has worked until the duplexers are back in place.

"The big picture wasn't discovered back then," he said, indicating that the expense would have been there from the first, although there wouldn't have been this delay.

"It seems to me, reluctant as I am to say this, is that we do not have an alternative," responded Finance Committee member Daryl Standafer.

While committee members agreed to the borrowing, a vote was delayed until the resolution can be rewritten to include the extra debt.

The county is also applying for loan money to cover $156,000 worth of equipment and upgrades for information technology systems; $110,000 for a Health and Human Services Department phone system; $15,000 to replace the parking lot at St. Croix Industries; and $20,755 as a grant match to help buy radios for emergency services.