Fla. county could face public safety radio shutdown due to outstanding $1.6M bill

The county has been given a deadline of 55 days to pay the bill, which is about $500,000 over its budget, after which first responders will no longer have radio communications access


Emily Mavrakis
The Gainesville Sun, Fla.

ALACHUA COUNTY, Fla. — 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 usual cost for running the system, or else it could face a system shutdown.

County commissioners voted at Tuesday's special meeting to send a letter to Gainesville Mayor Lauren Poe stating that they want to negotiate a better deal but will seek an injunction to stop the system from being inaccessible if the bill isn't paid on time.

Since 1999, GRUCom has been the service provider for the trunked radio system, which is used by county and municipal firefighters, emergency technicians, law enforcement and emergency service dispatchers at the combined communications center.

It operates six towers set up around the county — three within cities, and three others in unincorporated areas of the county — used to send signals between first responders.

Alachua County Fire Rescue Chief Harold Theus said all areas of the county need a reliable radio system in place for first responders to use during emergencies and natural disasters.

"For a matter of public safety, it's very important," he said.

Contracts with GRUCom have previously been negotiated approximately every 10 years, Theus said, with the most recent one ending Sept. 30, 2020.

Tommy Crosby, assistant county manager for budget and fiscal services, said that negotiations have so far failed due to an inability to get all parties — various municipalities and the county — to commit to all being on one system. All service users pay separate costs based on how much they use the service.

The county's share of the services under the most recent contract was about 45%. The county spent about $750,000 annually on the system. Other costs were split among municipalities, with Gainesville shouldering about 35%.

The total cost for the system was about $1.6 million under that arrangement, which left GRUCom operating the system at a deficit, said GRU General Manager Ed Bielarski. The system underwent some upgrades in 2018, which cost about $5.8 million, but Bielarski said GRUCom didn't initially charge for the cost.

"GRUCom should be paid their cost to provide their service," he said. "We just can't continue to operate the system at lower than our cost."

GRUCom's Chief Business Officer Lewis Walton sent a letter to County Manager Michele Lieberman on Monday evening informing her that the county will be billed this month for approximately $1.6 million, to be paid within 45 days. After that period has passed, the county will have 10 days to pay the bill or the county's access to the radio system will be terminated.

One of the reasons why the cost is significantly higher in the new bill than under previous contracts, Crosby said, is because GRUCom included the cost of calls fielded from the combined communications center in the county's operating costs. Rather than the usual 45% share the county previously paid, that would push that amount up to 75%.

Crosby said calls being made for city of Gainesville law enforcement units make up a significant amount of the call volume, which makes the new assessment inaccurate.

Under GRUCom's new bill, the county's cost to keep the system in place would be almost double what it's been paying.

Under the county's newest budget, it had accounted for a slight increase in operating costs, but only budgeted $1.1 million for the system. It will still be in the red by more than half a million dollars if an agreement can't be reached.

"It is a significant hit to our budget," Crosby said.

The county will continue to pay a cost per radio — about $60,000 per month, that it has been paying since the contract expired in September until the billing issue can be sorted out.

All other users of the radio system — which include the cities of Gainesville, Alachua, High Springs, Gainesville Regional Airport, the University of Florida and Santa Fe College, along with the UF Health Shands Hospital and VA Medical Center — will receive their own bills to pay within the allotted time period or be closed off from the system.

Theus, the fire rescue chief, said that shutting off the county's access to the system will mean that county firefighters and law enforcement vehicles would not be able to communicate with one another, along with units trying to communicate with hospitals. The combined communications center couldn't dispatch calls, either.

"I don't know how that could take place," he said. "If they shut us down, they're shutting everyone down."

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(c)2021 The Gainesville Sun, Fla.

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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