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Funding Feud Puts Communication System in Jeopardy

TIMES STAFF WRITER

A plan to build an $82-million communication system that law enforcement officials say is critically needed to maintain public safety in Orange County is in danger of falling through because county and city leaders are at odds over how to pay for the project, authorities said Tuesday.

County officials have asked cities to bear a bigger share of the massive project’s costs because the investment pool losses that prompted the county’s bankruptcy took a major bite out of county resources.

Moreover, the county’s original offer to pay nearly half of the project’s costs would likely encounter strenuous objections in Bankruptcy Court, where the county’s creditors would seize on the fact that the benefits the county might hope to gain from the new system would not measure up to the county’s costs.

“The county is not in the position anymore of carrying as much of the expense as we could before. We need some help from the cities,” said Robert A. Griffith, director of the county’s General Services Agency. “We need to work out some agreement on this because the project is so important for everybody.”

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City officials, however, are not eager to chip in any more money for the project. They complained on Tuesday that the county is shifting too much of the financial burden to them.

“Here we are in the eleventh and a half hour and the county is trying to change the agreement. It’s not right,” said Fullerton City Manager James L. Armstrong. “As much as I sympathize with the county’s fiscal situation, none of us can really afford to pay more.”

The dispute over how the costs should be apportioned is only the latest hurdle for a project that has been dogged by controversy during the planning phase over the past several years.

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Ericsson Inc., a would-be contractor that lost out to Motorola Communications in bidding to build the system, sued the county earlier this year, alleging that the contract was improperly awarded. A hearing will be held Thursday in Superior Court on Ericsson’s request that the project be halted.

Meanwhile, the county is also facing the possibility that the Federal Communications Commission could revoke its license for the 800-megahertz frequencies the system would use unless it is soon under construction. The frequencies are in great demand by other counties and cities hoping to upgrade their communications networks.

“Certainly, any prolonged delays or failure to come to an agreement would put the project in jeopardy,” Griffith said.

Law enforcement officials are increasingly frustrated over the seemingly unending delays in the project. They say the county’s current communication system is antiquated and overburdened, posing a threat to public safety.

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“It’s absolutely critical that this system get built,” Sheriff Brad Gates said. “Our current one doesn’t function for us in emergency situations and that places citizens’ lives and officers’ lives at stake.”

Supervisor William G. Steiner said frustration in law enforcement circles is understandable.

“This is an urgently needed project,” Steiner said. But he said he is hopeful that the cost dispute between the cities and county will be resolved quickly.

“Unfortunately, it seems like the bankruptcy continues to cloud city and county relationships,” he said. “But like most issues of controversy, I think a middle ground will ultimately be found.”

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As originally planned, the system was supposed to link all local law enforcement, fire and public works agencies into one network. But the ongoing fiscal crisis forced the county to scale back the project and limit participation only to law enforcement and fire agencies. Instead of a $94-million communication system, an $82-million project is now being planned.

Griffith said the radios and other equipment being supplied by Motorola will cost about $70 million. Another $12 million is needed to acquire land and to build radio transmitting towers.

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According to city and county officials, the two sides are squabbling over less than $10 million of the project’s costs.

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Griffith declined to discuss how the county wants the costs divided, saying that it is still under negotiation. But last march, the supervisors decided to lower their contribution to 28%, with the cities paying 72%. Griffith said the two sides, however, are now arguing over what costs those percentages should apply to.

Over the years that the project has been on the drawing board, the county’s 31 cities have been setting aside money to pay for the system, and those savings for the most part were invested in the county investment pool that collapsed Dec. 6. Armstrong said that being asked for more money now “adds insult to injury.” He said his city alone lost about $300,000 of the amount it had set aside for the communication network. Now, his city is being asked to contribute another $280,000.

“We are seriously evaluating whether it is in the best interests of Fullerton to continue to participate in the countywide 800-MHz radio system in light of the unilateral changes which the county has made in the structure of the . . . funding,” he wrote in a letter sent to the Board of Supervisors Oct. 27.


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