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State awards $2 million for emergency radio project

As the Niagara County Legislature formalized its decision to have Motorola Solutions construct the county's new emergency radio system, unexpected state funding brightened the picture.

Sheriff James R. Voutour told the Legislature last week that the state Division of Homeland Security and Emergency Services had awarded the county a $2 million grant from the state's cellphone surcharge.

That tax was set up to be shared with counties to operate their 911 phone systems, but the counties have long complained that the state has been keeping most of it.

Sixteen counties received grants, and only the $4 million for Cortland County exceeded the size of Niagara's.

Most of the grants went to counties whose communications infrastructure was damaged this year by Hurricane Irene and Tropical Storm Lee.

The Legislature voted Tuesday to authorize contract negotiations with Motorola as low bidder for a "narrowbanding" system of voice and data transmissions.

The term refers to a requirement imposed by the Federal Communications Commission that such transmissions must take up less space in the radio spectrum than in the past. The FCC mandate takes effect Jan. 1, 2013.

The Legislature's resolution says the cost of the project must not exceed $10 million, including the construction of some new radio towers and the purchase of new portable radios for police, firefighters and other first responders countywide.

"When we did this project, we included all the agencies," Voutour said. "What this will help most will be our cities."

"Some of the counties in New York State are assessing their users, police and fire and first responders [to pay for narrowbanding]," said Legislature Chairman William L. Ross said. "We won't do any of that here. Niagara County took this project on, and we'll have one of the best systems in New York State."

Legislator Paul B. Wojtaszek, R-North Tonawanda, said the system will offer 95 percent coverage of the county, with an extra tower serving Somerset to cover "dead spots" there.

The new radios are to be "interoperable," meaning users will be able to talk directly to members of other agencies.

"With other grant moneys, we're looking to cover about half of [the cost]," County Manager Jeffrey M. Glatz said. The remainder will be borrowed.

Budget Director Daniel R. Huntington said the cost of the $5 million bond issue is estimated to be $575,000 a year in principal and interest for 10 years.

The Legislature will have to vote again on the final contract with Motorola once it's completed. But the $10 million cost cap was a point of pride for some lawmakers.

But the $575,000 annual borrowing cost worried Legislature Majority Leader Richard E. Updegrove, R-Lockport, because of the 2 percent property tax cap.

Using round numbers, Updegrove figured the county can raise the tax levy about $1.4 million for 2013, based on a $70 million levy figure.

"We haven't even started the new year yet, and we've already used up [almost] half our tax cap money on a mandated program," Updegrove beefed.