Butler County spent $10M on a new emergency radio system. Was it worth it?

The final Butler County bill for the controversial $10 million Motorola emergency communications system replacement is about to be paid off, and officials continue to debate if the purchase was worth it.

In the summer of 2017, most county officials were taken by surprise by a $19.2 million replacement bill for the Motorola emergency communication system and radios police, firefighters and others all carry. The 800 MHz radio system cost $37 million to implement in 2009, and Motorola announced it had stopped making the radios and would stop servicing the devices in 2019.

Capt. Matt Franke, who is in charge of the system for Butler County Sheriff Richard Jones, backs the purchase.

“It was definitely a good investment and a needed one, you can’t just not upgrade these things,” Franke said. “Then with the individual radios same thing, the radios we replaced were introduced in about 2003 so if you want to put that in terms, show me a person who’s carrying a cell phone that was introduced in 2003 and I’ll change my opinion. Obviously people upgrade those.”

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When local jurisdictions balked at the bill for the emergency responder radios, the county negotiated a $10 million agreement for its needs and a half-price deal with Motorola for other jurisdictions. When county officials learned later a 2021 software upgrade could produce “critical failures” in the old radios, several jurisdictions agreed to the bulk upgrade and purchased the new equipment. They are: Fairfield, Fairfield Twp., Middletown (police radios only), Miami University, New Miami, Trenton (police and public works) and West Chester Twp.

Fairfield Twp. Fire Chief Tim Thomas said his trustees agreed to spend $347,168 to outfit his department, police and road crews with the new equipment early last year.

“They work the same as the other ones, there’s no improvement in quality. The new ones have more features that we typically don’t use,” Thomas said. “We still use them pretty much exactly the same.”

Franke said there are a number of features with the new equipment that enhance the safety of the users like a GPS locator in case a first responder can’t communicate. He said there is also a security feature that prevents hackers from accessing the system. It hasn’t happened here, but Stark County had an issue where burglars hacked the radio system “and were using it to stay ahead of the police,” he said.

He said the new devises are also more user-friendly.

“The new radio offers controls that are more ergonomic, brighter displays and clearer audio in addition to GPS location and enhanced data,” he said.

Thomas said his township’s old radios are still working fine, and he wishes the township had followed his recommendation and held off on the purchase, which would have allowed him to join a host of other fire chiefs who are applying for a grant to help defray the cost.

The Butler County Fire Chiefs Association will soon submit a $2 million request for Assistance to Firefighters Grant Program federal dollars to replace about 527 emergency responder radios. The jurisdictions involved in the grant application are: the cities of Hamilton, Middletown, Monroe, Oxford and Trenton and the townships of Hanover, Liberty Madison, Milford, Morgan, Oxford, Reily, Ross, St. Clair and Wayne. If successful in receiving the grant, the departments would only have to pay 10 percent of the radios’ cost.

The county has used various methods to finance the system since the beginning. The commissioners back in 2005 instituted a 50-cent temporary sales tax to pay for the entire system and the 800 MHz system went into operation at the end of 2008.

For the upgrade, the commissioners paid $3 million in cash, $1 million from the sheriff’s budget, about $1 million from the 911 fund and the remainder from the general fund. The $7 million in short-term bonds will be dissolved this month with a $2.6 million principle payment and $77,783 interest payment.

“The radio expenditure was not expected, it was more than we expected and sooner than we expected,” said Commissioner Don Dixon. “We were able to work it into the budget and the debt retirement plan and got it all paid for so it makes life for us a little bit easier. It’s good news for the taxpayers and the people who have our radios.”

Commissioner T.C. Rogers echoed the thought.

“It’s just another step and example of how we took an unexpected cost and were able to manage it to a resolution,” Rogers said.

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