State mandate cuts into cash-strapped budget

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Communicating with all parties in an emergency is ideal, but paying for that service may cut even more deeply into an already cash-strapped county budget.

According to a new policy, counties in Northwest Colorado will have to change over to an 800-megahertz digital communications system probably within the next couple years.

The system is designed to provide seamless statewide communications between various police and emergency responders. It supports wireless voice and data communications on a single integrated system and prevents users from talking over one another.

The need to coordinate Colorado police with emergency responders came to the forefront when state emergencies such as the Columbine shootings and the fervent Hayman Fire left separate emergency agencies cut off from communicating with each other.

On a local level, the system change will entail outfitting the sheriff's office with almost 50 new radios for use in patrol vehicles and other hand-held devices for deputies at a cost of about $3,500 each. That potentially more than $150,000 price tag for radios is a hefty expense, said Sheriff Buddy Grinstead, especially at a at a time when county funds are limited.

"I have mixed emotions," Grinstead said. "A lot of information pertains to the system's inefficiencies. I'm not sure it's in the best interest of Moffat County to invest in all new radios."

Late last year two Colorado congressmen, Scott McInnis and Tom Tancredo, formally requested $10.3 million in funds to help governments install the system that the state initially wanted hooked up by 2005.

But in the wake of state budget shortfalls, the Legislature killed almost $17 million for the project that would have aided areas in the Western Slope.

With state and federal funding for the project in limbo, the local cost of transferring over to a new communications system is a big deal, said Moffat County Commissioner Marianna Raftopoulos.

"The $3,500 cost for each radio is my first concern," she said. "We've been keeping our ear to the ground to figure out where this leads."

She said she hoped that eventually federal or state grants would kick in to cover the future costs.

But she added the county doesn't want to be the last to update to the new system, which all counties are eventually required to do.

"Counties all over the state have the problem with how to fund this," Raftopoulos added. "It's something we have to change and we don't want to be the last ones to do it. We need to sit down and analyze how we want to approach it."

Benefits of the system would allow areas to communicate with one another in the event of a major emergency event. The new radio system should allow counties an avenue of communication to offer mutual aid.

The sheriff's department currently pays a $49,000 fee for dispatch services.

Some reports that the 800-megahertz system doesn't always work well in mountainous areas makes Grinstead nervous.

"To date I've heard they can be unpredictable," he said.

But the decision isn't under local control.

"It doesn't matter, we have to follow the state protocol," Grinstead said.

Amy Hatten can be reached at 824-7031 or ahatten@craigdailypress.com.

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