While the Londonderry Town Council didn’t exactly balk at the price tag for improving the town’s communications infrastructure, it has instructed the Fire Department, the architects of the project, and Finance Director Doug Smith to find the best possible way to finance it, including bonding, leasing or phasing-in.
In a budget discussion in the Dec. 5 Council meeting, the Council also recognized that implementing the plan will require a public education campaign.
The working cost for a full communications upgrade, including infrastructure, vehicle radios and personal radios, is $4,200,000. The cost would cover communications for the fire, police and Public Works departments.
In the Council meeting, Town Manager Kevin Smith said, “There are still a lot of open questions about this.”
Fire Chief Darren O’Brien, Battalion Chief Mike McQuillen and Lt. Jeremy Mague responded to questions from the Council.
Finance Director Smith said the good news is that everything in the proposed upgrade is subject to leasing. The maximum lease term, he said, is 15 years.
Smith said he was planning to break down the annual schedule for the $4.2 million, so each year’s tax impact could be seen.
Councilor Tom Freda asked if Smith were recommending the upgrade be a warrant article or part of the operating budget, and Smith suggested a warrant article. He also said, in response to a question from Freda, that if approved, the lease cost would be part of the operating/default budget in the second year.
The Council has also discussed bonding the project, and Kevin Smith reminded them that if there is a bond, the bond hearing has to be no later than Dec. 19. “If we decide not to bond, we don’t need to have the hearing,” he said.
The first year interest and bond issue costs are estimated at $107,500, with a .028 impact on the tax rate.
Data gathering and sticker shock
Council Chair John Farrell said he had sent an e-mail to Kevin Smith asking for a more detailed breakdown. “What towers can we ‘piggyback’ on? What towers can’t we piggyback on? Can we use a tower at the airport?” He noted that Police Chief Bill Hart has 63 sworn officers, but that there are more than 70 personal radios requested for the Police Department.
O’Brien responded, “We as department heads looked at what was necessary equipment to ensure the safety of our personnel.”
O’Brien said that Mague and McQuillen spent hours talking with other departments and with vendors.
“I am concerned when I see the question, ‘Why do we need this?'” O’Brien told the Council. He urged members to come in and talk with him personally.
One question floated by the Council was why two mobile radios are needed in each fire vehicle, and O’Brien said it was because of mutual aid. “We need to access several different channels in an emergency,” he said.
He noted that the “extra” portable radios were for new hires and said, “Each new hire is issued one. It is their lifeline.” In addition, O’Brien said, the research team wanted to have extras on the shelves in case someone’s radio malfunctioned.
While fire personnel work in teams, police are often on the road alone, and it’s essential that they have functioning radios, O’Brien said.
“If they don’t have the right equipment, it is a recipe for failure,” he said.
“We are not just shooting from the hip,” O’Brien said of the team’s research.
Farrell agreed, but said the Council was doing its “due diligence.” “This is the biggest expense to come before us since the building of this complex,” he said, referring to the Town Offices and Police Department.
“The number shocked me as well,” O’Brien said.
But will it last?
Councilor Tom Dolan expressed concern about the changes in technology. While Doug Smith assured him that communications equipment didn’t change as rapidly as personal computers and phones, Dolan said, “I know what’s going to be on the minds of a lot of people as they go into the ballot box. The taxpayers are not going to get the explanation we’re getting tonight. I put myself in that situation, and I would be extraordinarily nervous about the ‘unknown unknowns.'”
Dolan pointed out that if they did bond, it would be 2038 before the bond was off the books.
“This is our biggest challenge, thinking of how to market this to the community,” he said. In Londonderry’s recent history, if people were confused about a big-ticket item, they voted no, Dolan said.
How it would work
Mague said the town would co-locate, or place its existing equipment on someone else’s tower. “All the ‘dead space’ in town would be covered,” he said.
The current Nelson Road site has 100 watts of power, which is adequate, he said, adding that the group would be looking for two more sites, one in the north of town and one in the south.
While police and fire need more communications units, Public Works is also working with equipment that is outdated, McQuillen said. The proposed plan would put a radio in each truck, plus a command center back at the garage and a portable radio for each employee.
Dolan suggested that another source of funding might be levying a premium on the towns with which Londonderry contracts for dispatch services. O’Brien said he is currently in negotiations with one town and they have requested an upgrade of equipment.
Kevin Smith brought up two more questions: If the project is phased in, would the initial cost be lower? And, has the research team contacted any firm other than Motorola?
McQuillen said it would be possible to phase in the project, doing the infrastructure first and adding the portable and mobile equipment later.
As for Motorola, he said that Motorola is what the departments use now. It is more reliable and the leader in the field.
Farrell asked if they could look at other vendors, and McQuillen said their dealer was assigned to them by Motorola.
Farrell asked for more information on the leasing option. “I want to see what it would look like, some hard numbers,” he told O’Brien and his staff. “And I want it to be for 10 to 15 years, no longer.”
A public hearing on the proposed budget and warrant articles will be held this Monday, Dec. 12, at 7 p.m. in the Moose Hill Conference Room.