Local officials raise questions on statewide radio project

 By Kay Braddock

Proponents of Montana’s statewide radio program, better known as the Interoperability Montana project, may hope to find a warmer greeting in the state’s 54 other counties. That’s because Disaster Emergency Service directors in both Fallon and Prairie counties are crying, “foul,” to the construction of the large, multi-million-dollar project that began in 2004.
“It’s just way too much technology,” Fallon County DES director Chuck Lee said. “The communication systems that we currently have are plenty good.”
The IM project, which began five years ago, is chiefly funded through federal grant money obtained from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security. Proponents tout the estimated $54 million project will provide a better way of communication between state, federal and local agencies throughout Montana, using microwave technology.
“We have 56 counties in the state,” IM project executive director Kevin Bruski said in a phone interview from Helena. “There’s only two counties that have separated themselves from the project.” 
But Prairie County DES director John Pisk questioned that figure.
“We’re the two counties speaking out against it,” Pisk said, but pointed out there are other counties throughout the state that are questioning the IM project as well, but have so far been unwilling to voice their opposition to it.
Lee also pointed to  Carbon and Lake counties who have never joined a consortia. The IM project works with nine consortiums throughout the state. Prairie and Fallon counties are designated to be a part of the Eastern Tier consortia.
“I actually plan on making a trip out to Prairie County and Fallon County to visit with the Sheriffs and county commissioners from both those counties,” Bruski said.
With microwave towers and master control sites being built throughout the state, proponents point out that agencies from as far away as Ravailli County will be better able to communicate with local agencies like the Sheriff’s office in Prairie County.
But Pisk questions the need for such a capability. In the rarity of such occasions like that, the Sheriff can pick up his cell phone or desk phone and call them, Pisk said. 
The IM project will work strictly on a digital format, Pisk noted. Currently county fire and emergency services use the preferred analog format with their radios. 
Once portable and handheld radios are purchased, Pisk questioned the cost to county to update the technology in future years. He raised concerns of costs to individual counties of replacing broken or damaged radios as well.
“The cost benefit doesn’t help Prairie County because it’s more technology than we need to operate our services,” Pisk said. 
Prairie County is only one of two agencies that will be sharing the master control site, set to be located in Dawson County, rather than the anticipated initial four agencies, according to Pisk.
“Instead of splitting costs with four agencies, there will be only two agencies to split costs,” Pisk explained. 
But Bruski believes more agencies will likely choose to operate within the Eastern Tier’s master control site.
“If you build the system, they’ll come. And that’s kind of what’s happening here,” Bruski said, pointing to the popularity of the completed portion of the IM project in Lewis and Clark County and the increased number of subscribers the master control site there now holds. 
So far, the IM project completed portions include areas between Helena and Billings and Helena to Beaverhead County. The Northern Tier, which includes the high-line is close to completion as well, Bruski noted. 
The statewide project is anticipated to be completed by 2013.
“Being Montana is the fourth largest state in the nation … this is a huge project for such a small populated state,” Bruski explained.
Sustainability costs of the IM project may very well be the main sticking point for both Lee and Pisk and the concern that it will ultimately mean more cost to counties like Prairie and Fallon than the current radio system in use.
“Even if they get it built, how are they going to maintain the darn thing?” Lee questioned.  
There have been a total of three sustainability proposals drafted so far, according to Lee. All three of which have been abandoned and would have required an increase in taxes in some form. 
“They don’t have a fixed revenue stream,” Lee said of the costs to maintain the IM project. “They’ve got to support it somehow. They don’t have any mechanism to support it.”
Pisk believes that will likely mean costly user fees applied to counties.
Acknowledging that a firm sustainability plan has yet to be reached, Bruski said the group is looking at different ways to sustain the IM project. One option includes emulating how the Montana Association of Counties receives funding from counties, which would include membership fees and user fees.
“It’s basically based on population,” Bruski said, noting more populated counties would foot a bigger bill than less populated counties like Prairie and Fallon. State and federal agencies like the Department of Transportation and Department of Natural Resource and Conservation would also likely foot a bigger portion of the sustainability costs as well. 
“It’s been a big push to make this a local project,” Bruski said.
But Lee questions the assertion that the IM project was ever a grassroots move.
“It’s portrayed as the locals wanting to do it and it couldn’t be further from the truth,” Lee said. “If it was grassroots show me the one guy that said, ‘Hey, lets form a consortium.’”
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