Phenix City Council OKs $4 million radio system for public safety

With one eye on the city finances and another on the safety of public employees, the Phenix City Council unanimously agreed Thursday to spend nearly $4 million to upgrade its outdated radio communication system.

The five-member council agreed to switch from its analog system to a digital, state of the art system from Motorola Solutions Inc. The lease purchase could have been approved during a June 17 meeting with Gail Head, Chris Blackshear and Mayor Eddie Lowe present, but the mayor called for the delay to allow Councilmembers Jim Cannon and Arthur Day to consider the largest purchase for the council.

Lowe recognized Head and Blackshear for suggesting that all councilmembers be available for the purchase.

“Are we always going to agree? No, we are not,” he said. “We are going to do what’s best for the citizens and I appreciate Gail and Chris for coming up with that idea, cause we actually could have voted on it last Tuesday. There are certain things that everybody needs to be here on. With that, we are going to continue to work together for the betterment of this city.”

Under the proposal, the city had to approve the system before Friday to receive a $526,066 discount. The city will pay $1.3 million down on the system and finance the remaining $2.7 million over a 12-year period.

With about 50 police, firefighters and other city employees crowded into the council chambers, Blackshear expressed 100 percent support for the system before the vote but questioned why the city couldn’t pay for it out of the $45 million in reserves and avoid $300,000 in interest.

Finance Director Steve Smith said the city’s AA credit rating is based on the amount of reserves the city has available. Reducing the reserves would affect the credit rating.

“If we spend down those reserves, we will lose part of that credit rating,” he said. “That credit rating will go down every time we borrow. We will pay higher rates.”

The city is working to get reserves to 120 days of operation. It currently has enough for 107 days.

“It is enormously valuable to the city,” Smith said of the city’s credit rating.

When Head asked if the purchase would affect the city’s credit rating, Smith said it wouldn’t.

Cannon’s concern was centered on the old police radios when the new radio system is up and running by July 2015. Police Chief Ray Smith said the city radios would be obsolete but are still used by private businesses and warehouse operations.

Steve Smith said the new system would replace the one at the city that’s more than 20 years old. Officers have faced difficulty reaching the dispatcher with the outdated analog system.

“It’s no longer operable in certain parts of the city,” he said.

With the new system, the city will erect two 300-foot towers. The system not only can be used by Phenix City, but also by other agencies in the region.

Brad Johnson, an account manager for Motorola Solutions, said the P25 radios would enable all city departments to talk with police, fire and other city agencies.

The system is similar to the 800 megahertz system used by the Columbus Police Department. The one approved by Phenix City is a newer release, but it would allow Columbus police to talk to Phenix City officers if a driver sped across the Chattahoochee River.

Johnson said the Russell County Sheriff’s Office is also using an outdated analog system from the 1960s. After the system is up and running, Johnson said the company would propose that the county and sheriff join the system. “It would give them capabilities and coverage they do not have today,” he said.

Johnson said there will be room for another 500 radios to operate on the new system. “There is much room to grow,” he said.

City Manager Wallace Hunter, who served as a firefighter and fire chief, said on many occasions personnel couldn’t talk to one another.

“It’s a dangerous situation for first responders,” he said. “It is something we have been working on for a while. It’s going to be a major project.”