Latest Communications Plan Passes To Town Voters

The team from the Fire Department continued to chip away at the potential cost of a Communications Infrastructure upgrade for their department, Police and Public Works, and the Town Council and Budget Committee have passed the issue on to voters.

In a budget hearing this past Monday, the Council and Budget Committee heard the latest numbers on the upgrade from Town Manager Kevin Smith and Finance Director Doug Smith. While some questioned the urgency of the need, both boards voted unanimously to pass the question on to voters, first in the Feb. 11 deliberative session and then in the March 14 voting.

The project was originally estimated to cost $4.2 million, and the Council had discussed various iterations of leasing, bonding and Unassigned Fund Balance funding. The Council agreed to postpone the “subscriber service” or individual and vehicle radio equipment, but opted to fund the infrastructure, and the number brought to the budget hearing was $2,824,730. One million of that was planned to be bonded, with the other $824,730 to be a capital lease. The remaining $1 million was to be taken from the UFB. The first year’s interest and principal was to be $260,000, and the tax impact .07 cents. The article requires a 60 percent approval to pass.

In Monday’s meeting, Kevin Smith informed the Council and Budget Committee that another $70,000 had been shaved from the cost.

Doug Smith said, “We worked with Two-Way Communications (a communications company) and they massaged the numbers.”

The revised amount drops the initial payment of $260,000 to $245,000, Dough Smith said.

Chairman John Farrell said if 3,000 people come out to vote, the article, #2 on the warrant, needs 1,800 to vote in the affirmative.

The Council discussed splitting the article between the bond part and the lease part, and Vice-Chair Tom Freda asked if the lease would need a 60 percent vote.

“Not if it includes an escape clause,” Doug Smith responded. “Then it’s 51 percent, or simple majority.” Smith said all the leases the town negotiates include escape clauses.

Farrell observed that he receives e-mails from constituents, many of whom work in Massachusetts, and that they point to other communities and question whether the upgrade is necessary. Manchester and Nashua just updated their infrastructure, he said, “But I’m not aware of anyone else. We need to make sure we’re doing this for the right reason.”

Councilor Joe Green observed that the town could ask for the money now, and if it’s approved, set the amount aside. “We are being proactive,” he said. “With the information from Doug, we know the rates are good.”

Freda said, “We don’t know if we can get by without this. But I wouldn’t want to find out we thought we were, and we were wrong.”

Freda added, “If we put it on the budget and the voters approve it, that doesn’t mean we have to spend it.”

Fire Lt. Jeremy Mague, who has worked on the project along with Battalion Chief Mike McQuillen, reminded the Council that the current system is analog, not digital, and that support won’t be available from Motorola after 2020. “If it fails, that’s it,” Mague said.

McQuillen said the reason other communities aren’t doing this is because they have more funding and have already replaced their radios.

The Council and Budget Committee heard from Bruce Hollowell, a firefighter, who said, “The system we’re using is 10 to 15 years old. There are multiple places in the community where it does not work, including one assisted living facility.” It is also dicey at the Manchester/Boston Regional Airport, according to Hollowell. “You have to use an individual standing outside to relay a message to the Fire Department.”

Hollowell reminded the board that improving communications equipment was one of the goals set up by the department after the double-fatal fire on Hemlock Street in 2011.

“When you’re dealing with life or death, you’d like to be able to reach somebody,” Hollowell observed.

“Is it a need or a want?” Green asked McQuillen.

“It is a need,” McQuillen said.

“Is it an imminent need?” Green pressed, to which Mague said it was.

Green suggested doing the project, but in increments of $1 million, $750,000 and a final $1 million. “That way it won’t hurt the taxpayer so much,” he said.

Doug Smith said he could set up a capital reserve funding mechanism for the project.

But the article remained unaltered, with the new figures to be part of an amendment Feb. 11, and both boards voted to pass it on.


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