A planned upgrade to digital technology for emergency communications in Suffolk County could prove costly for East End police, fire and emergency services — while taxpayers in the five East End towns help repay $22 million in debt to fund new equipment deployed countywide, including 5,000 radios for the Suffolk County Police Department.
The technology upgrade will be funded with new general-fund borrowing that will be repaid by all taxpayers in Suffolk County, according to the legislature’s budget review office director, Robert Lipp.
That raises the specter of East End taxpayers, who live outside of the the county police district that serves the five western towns, footing the bill for equipment that should properly be charged only to the Suffolk County Police District, according to South Fork legislator Jay Schneiderman (I-Montauk).
The five East End towns all fund and operate their own police departments, which would not receive any of the technology upgrade funding from the county.
On the East End, only the Riverhead Police Department currently uses the county’s radio communications system. The other town and village departments operate their own local systems. Riverhead would have to upgrade or replace its equipment in order to continue to use the county system after the county makes the digital switch.
“I don’t know how many radios we’ll have to replace,” Riverhead Police Chief David Hegermiller said. “A portable radio is $3,000. I have 70 or so.”
Hegermiller said he’s hoping at least some of those radios could be upgraded with new software, which would be less costly. He said it also wasn’t clear how much of the department’s aging communications infrastructure would also have to be replaced. Information about the coming changes was not flowing freely from the county, Hegermiller said. That is making it hard to budget for 2015, the chief said.
“I’m all for the upgrade,” the Riverhead police chief said, “but not knowing and getting everything third-hand is not a good way to go about it.”
Schneiderman said he was upset to learn that the bonds funding the upgrade, proposed in the 2015-2017 capital program approved by legislators and Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone last month, would be general fund indebtedness only. He said he did not realize that when the capital program budget was negotiated.
“There is a general fund portion of the police budget and then there is a police district portion of the police budget,” Schneiderman said, referring to the fact that towns and villages that have their own police departments rely on the county police for certain services, such as arson and homicide investigations.
“I would be furious if the radios in the squad cars are being charged to the countywide fund,” Schneiderman said in a phone interview.
Suffolk Police Commissioner Ed Webber told the legislature’s public safety committee on May 21 that 5,000 of the 9,000 new radios to be purchased by the county in the upgrade will be police radios, according to minutes of the meeting. The other 4,000 radios will go to other county agencies, Webber said.
The county executive added $7.3 million to the county police department’s $10.82 capital program request to cover the cost of upgrading or replacing radios for other county agencies, according to capital program budget documents. The additional amount will fund radios for FRES, DPW, Suffolk County buses, sheriff’s department, health department, medical examiner, probation, district attorney, consumer affairs, parks and Suffolk County Community College.
Schneiderman said this week he has asked the legislature’s legal counsel to investigate the matter.
“If we’re paying for theirs but they’re not paying for ours, that’s not only unfair, it’s illegal,” Schneiderman said. The Suffolk County administrative code requires police district expenses to be paid only by police district taxpayers, he said.
One of the main objectives of the upgrade is to have police and emergency services using the same radio communications system countywide, according to the county executive, who unveiled plans for the upgrade at an April 17 press conference at the Patchogue Fire Department. It will also provide “interoperability” with state and federal agencies in times of emergency, he said. The need for that was demonstrated during Hurricane Sandy, he said.
The new P25 digital technology also gives police and emergency officials the ability to encrypt transmissions to prevent the public from listening in on communications. It will also provide GPS locator services, which will help in emergencies like the Manorville brush fire, when a firefighter got lost in the woods, according to county budget documents.
“This project will provide Suffolk County with a new communications system infrastructure utilizing the P25 standards,” Bellone said.
The upgrade will be rolled out in two phases, according to a spokesperson for the county executive. The first phase, in 2015, will upgrade the county’s communication infrastructure, at a cost of $11.9 million, spokesperson Vanessa Baird-Streeter said. The second phase will include the purchase of new radios and related equipment, projected to be a $10 million investment.
Riverhead Supervisor Sean Walter said if the county is truly interested in improving emergency communications countywide, as the county executive says, it should bond sufficient monies to fund the upgrade for all five East End towns too.
“If the debt is being paid out of the general fund and the county is really interested in efficiency and uniformity, that’s what should happen,” Walter said.
North Fork Legislator Al Krupski said he is working to determine how this will affect local fire departments as well.
Jamesport, Wading River and Manorville fire departments are dispatched by Suffolk County on the county communications system. They will need to upgrade to the new digital technology to remain on the county network.
“It’s going to be a very expensive proposition,” Jamesport Chief Sean McCabe said. “We’re pricing it right now.” Some fire departments have been able to procure grants to help fund the transition, McCabe said.
But the switchover to digital technology is not the only communications change the local fire departments are dealing with. A federal law enacted in 2012 requires public safety agencies using low-band frequencies — called T-band UHF frequencies — to migrate to other frequencies by 2021. About half the fire departments in Suffolk use the T-band UHF frequencies, according to a June 13 memo from Suffolk County FRES commissioner Joseph Williams sent to all fire and ambulance chiefs and districts.
Since the county is in the process of upgrading and expanding its 700/800MHz system with the new digital technology, Williams said, “I encourage departments to consider investing in 800MHz radios…to foster communication as we begin to consider ourselves one large coordinated system,” Williams wrote.
Wading River Fire District manager Greg Michalakopoulos said he’s concerned that accomplishing the digital upgrade in just two years will be too much of a burden on local departments and taxpayers. He said he expects the bulk of the funding to come out of the district’s reserve fund, but he was unsure what the total expense would be.
The Southold Town Fire District Officers Association has a meeting scheduled today to discuss how to deal with the loss of low band frequencies, according to its president, Lloyd Reisenberg.
A move to the new digital technology by Southold fire districts will not be required by the county switchover because the Southold Town fire districts are dispatched by Southold Police, which maintains its own communications system locally. Southold PD likely won’t be greatly impacted by the county changeover, Southold Police Chief Martin Flatley said.
Local fire districts that are not using the county system for local communication currently have at least one radio capable of communicating with county dispatch, and they will receive a new digital radio from the county, North Fork Legislator Al Krupski said.
The Riverhead Fire District already has digital communication equipment, Commissioner Dennis Hammill said. Riverhead, which dispatches its own calls, “just put in a brand new radio room. It’s less than three years old,” he said.
“We have to see what they plan to do first,” Hammill said, “and then we’ll see if we can complement it.”