Firefighters face shutting down the radio system due to FL County’s $ 1.6 million invoice

Alachua County, FL, Fire Rescue

After the county failed to negotiate a new contract with Gainesville Regional Utilities’ GRUCom for its public safety radio system, GRUCom billed the county $ 1.6 million – more than double the county’s normal cost to operate the system , or the system could come to a standstill.

The county commissioners voted at Tuesday’s special session to send a letter to Gainesville Mayor Lauren Poe stating that they want to negotiate a better deal but will seek an injunction to prevent that the system becomes inaccessible if the invoice is not paid on time.

GRUCom has been the service provider for the trunked radio system since 1999, which is used by fire fighters, emergency technicians, law enforcement and emergency service managers of the combined communication center.

It operates six towers that have been built around the county – three within cities and three more in unincorporated areas of the county – that are used to send signals between first responders.

Harold Theus, fire chief for Alachua County, said all areas of the county need a reliable radio system so that first responders can be deployed in the event of emergencies and natural disasters.

“It’s very important for public safety,” he said.

According to Theus, contracts with GRUCom have already been negotiated about every 10 years, the last ending on September 30, 2020.

Tommy Crosby, assistant district manager for household and financial services, said negotiations have so far failed because not all parties – different municipalities and the district – could be brought to form one system. All service users pay separate costs depending on how often they use the service.

The county’s share of the services under the last contract was around 45%. The county spent about $ 750,000 annually on the system. The other costs were shared among the parishes, with Gainesville assuming about 35%.

The total cost of the system under this agreement was approximately $ 1.6 million, which resulted in GRUCom operating the system in deficit, said Ed Bielarski, general manager of GRU. The system underwent a number of upgrades in 2018 that cost approximately $ 5.8 million. However, Bielarski said that GRUCom did not initially invoice the costs.

“GRUCom should bear the cost of providing their services,” he said. “We just can’t keep running the system than we cost it.”

Lewis Walton, GRUCom’s chief business officer, sent a letter to county manager Michele Lieberman Monday evening informing her that the county will be billed approximately $ 1.6 million this month, due within 45 Days are to be paid. After this period has expired, the district has 10 days to pay the bill or the district’s access to the radio system is terminated.

One of the reasons the cost in the new bill is significantly higher than in previous contracts, Crosby said, is because GRUCom included the cost of calls from the combined communications center in the county’s operating costs. Instead of the usual 45% the county paid earlier, this would increase that amount to 75%.

Crosby said calls to Gainesville city law enforcement agencies account for a significant proportion of the call volume, making the new estimate inaccurate.

According to the new GRUCom bill, the district’s costs for maintaining the system would be almost twice as high as the costs it paid

According to the county’s latest budget, operating costs had increased slightly, but the system was only budgeted for $ 1.1 million. There will still be more than half a million dollars in the red if no agreement can be reached.

“It’s a significant hit on our budget,” said Crosby.

The county continues to pay a cost per radio – about $ 60,000 a month that it has been paying since the contract expired in September until the billing issue can be resolved.

All other users of the radio system – including the cities of Gainesville, Alachua, High Springs, Gainesville Regional Airport, the University of Florida and Santa Fe College, and UF Health Shands Hospital and VA Medical Center – will receive their own bills within the allotted time frame pay or be excluded from the system.

Theus, the chief fire officer, said blocking the county’s access to the system would prevent county firefighters and police vehicles from communicating with each other, as would units trying to communicate with hospitals. The combined communication center was also unable to send calls.

“I don’t know how that could happen,” he said. “If they close us, they all close.”

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