School Safety Act critics question funding radio system
by Shane Dunaway
Mar 30, 2013 | 2181 views |  0 comments | 13 13 recommendations | email to a friend | print
Bus drivers in Talladega and Calhoun counties use 800 megahertz radios to maintain two-way communication with the schools and, if needed, emergency personnel. The School Safety Act enables the user fees charged by the Alabama Regional Communications System board to be as low as $1 or $2 per radio.
Bus drivers in Talladega and Calhoun counties use 800 megahertz radios to maintain two-way communication with the schools and, if needed, emergency personnel. The School Safety Act enables the user fees charged by the Alabama Regional Communications System board to be as low as $1 or $2 per radio.
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Two weeks after its introduction, the School Safety Act continues to grab headlines as civic leaders across Calhoun and Talladega counties debate and discuss whether or not to pass resolutions supporting a June referendum.

If state legislators approve the proposal and county residents vote in favor of the School Safety Act in the June referendum, a 3.5 mills property tax used to fund school resource officers, radio alert notification equipment and general public safety initiatives goes into effect.

The bulk of the questions raised in discussions revolve around the Alabama Regional Communications System, formerly known as the Chemical Stockpile Emergency Preparedness Program 800 megahertz radio system, currently serving more than 3,000 users in more than 100 agencies in the two counties.

Despite District 2 Commissioner John Luker’s opposition to the resolution, the Talladega County Commission supported the School Safety Act Monday by a 3-1 vote.

Luker’s concerns related directly to roughly $3.9 million raised from instituting a property tax going to the ARCS board.

“It’s titled the School Safety Act, but 55 percent of the projected revenue goes to the ARCS board,” Luker said. “If we’re going to have a School Safety Act, then let’s make it more focused on school safety.”

According to records provided by the ARCS board, law enforcement agencies make up the largest group of the system’s users at 35 percent, while the schools in the counties make up the second largest group at 21 percent.

The remaining 44 percent of system users consists of the fire departments at 18 percent, the county emergency management agencies and warning siren systems at 9 percent, and emergency management services and hospitals at 6 percent.

Other city, county, state and federal agencies, including Anniston Army Depot Security, Alabama Alcohol Beverage Control and Calhoun County Animal Control round out the final 11 percent.

Luker works as training lieutenant for the Lincoln Fire Department, a station currently using 49 radios.

“I feel like there are other options that could be looked at instead of the 800 MHz radios,” he said.

Kevin Jenkins, administrator for the ARCS board, provided a differing point of view.

“While there are numerous commercial options available, we believe our system is the most cost-effective way to provide mission-critical communications between all our agencies using this system,” Jenkins said. “The main benefit of our system is its 99.999 percent reliability rating. Our counties have multiple topographical features that could hinder cellular phones and other forms of communication.”

Another feature Jenkins touted is the ability to encrypt messages sent through the system.

“This feature is beneficial to the community because it helps protect sensitive and personal information such as driver’s license numbers, birthdays, Social Security numbers and other similar forms of information,” Jenkins said. “We live in a time where identity theft is becoming more common and it’s important to protect your information.

“Encrypting the messages is also important because it keeps the criminals from having the capability to listen to ongoing operations,” Jenkins added. “Not every jurisdiction has this advantage.”

More advantages the system provides can be found at the ARCS website, www.arcsonline.org/advantages.

Currently, the ARCS charges a $22.50 user fee for every radio on the system per month and a $50 user fee for each of the 34 consoles issued to dispatchers within the counties. The user fee covers the cost of providing access to the communications system, including operations and maintenance of the system’s infrastructure.

Jenkins said with the passing of the School Safety Act, it would allow ARCS to take more than $800,000 of the projected $3.9 million in revenue and pour those funds into maintaining the infrastructure, greatly reducing user fees to as low as $1 or $2 a month per radio.

“For some of our larger groups of users like the Talladega County Board of Education, it could save them more than $40,000 per year and they would have that money to put back into other needs,” Jenkins said. “These savings will trickle down to all agencies using our system.”

As part of the provision potentially reducing the user fees, ARCS seeks to add volunteer fire departments not currently using the system, pushing their subscriber total to 3,500.

With the revenue from the property tax, the ARCS board plans to finance an upgrade for the system costing more than $870,000 per year for five years. Once the upgrades are purchased, the board will shift $940,000 toward maintaining and replacing the county’s outdoor warning sirens.

Another $1.5 million from the property tax funds replacing subscribers’ radios every nine years. According to records provided by ARCS, replacing each radio costs $4,000 and the ARCS projects a $14 million cost to replace them. For the first year, funds from this pool would be used to place emergency “panic” systems in place throughout the schools.

“By outfitting our teachers with a ‘panic’ button, they could press it and an emergency notification would be sent to the radios on our system,” Jenkins said.

The remaining portion of the tax revenue would be earmarked for sustaining the system.

Jenkins adamantly insisted the measures supporting the ARCS are vital in ensuring the success of other portions of the School Safety Act.

“A police officer without a reliable means of two-way communication is ineffective,” Jenkins said. “It’s as essential as having a badge and gun. Our SROs, fire departments and emergency personnel need this reliable means of communications.”

The ARCS board will hold a public meeting April 9 at 8:30 a.m. at the Oxford Civic Center for all its agencies and users regarding the School Safety Act and the future of the 800 MHz radio system.

“We want to provide factual information to our citizens because our system greatly benefits them,” Jenkins said. “They have a decision coming up in the future and we want to make sure they’re well-informed about what our system’s capabilities are. This is what we want to do for you. Ask yourself if it’s worth 10 cents a day.”

Contact Shane Dunaway at sdunaway@dailyhome.com.