County at odds with city of L.A. over funding pulled from emergency system

An ambitious plan to connect all of Los Angeles County’s fire and police agencies on a single communications system has hit another potential setback with the loss of $11 million in federal grant funding administered by the city of Los Angeles.

County officials and the head of the regional agency overseeing the project say the funding loss will further delay the creation of a multi-jurisdictional radio system for emergency responders, which they had hoped to have up and running by 2017. The plan to build a countywide mobile radio and broadband system has run into repeated setbacks, including problems with contracts and pushback by residents concerned about radio towers.

The five county supervisors sent a letter to Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti and City Council President Herb Wesson last week objecting to the $11-million shift in federal funding. County officials said Garcetti recommended to the authority that allocates the grant funds that the money be shifted to another local communications project.

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“Your recent actions are negatively impacting … the overall success of this important regional public safety project,” the supervisors wrote. The loss of the grant money, they wrote, created an “unplanned funding gap” in the Los Angeles Regional Interoperable Communications System, and put the county “in a financial position that we find objectionable.”

Sheriff Jim McDonnell and county Chief Executive Sachi Hamai issued their own statements warning of the risks created by the withdrawal of funds.

“We know that it’s not a question of if, but when the next major disaster will strike Southern California, and we lack a modern communications system that will allow dozens of agencies, including the City of Los Angeles, to talk to other first responders during an emergency,” Hamai said.

The city’s chief administrative officer, Miguel Santana, said the shift in funds “wasn’t intended to shortchange anyone” and that the money might be restored in the future.

The regional system was conceived in the wake of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, when New York police and firefighters were unable to easily communicate because they were on different radio systems. In 2009, a countywide joint powers authority formed to address the problem here. The intent was to build voice and broadband communication systems that could be used by all of the 81 public safety agencies serving Los Angeles County residents, replacing the current “patchwork” of communications systems.

But over the last year, a number of cities — including, most recently, the city of Los Angeles — have dropped out of the system, citing cost concerns, and leaving the county and other remaining cities on the hook for a larger share of whatever costs are not covered by grants. The city of Los Angeles plans to build its own stand-alone radio system that will be compatible with the regional system.

Santana and Chief Legislative Analyst Sharon Tso wrote in a memo to lawmakers that the “city will be able to upgrade its existing system and use existing infrastructure at a lower cost, while still achieving interoperability within the region.”

Garcetti did not respond to questions about the grant money, but his spokeswoman, Connie Llanos, said the city had decided to opt out of the regional radio system “in an effort to provide Angelenos with a seamless communication between first responders, regardless of jurisdiction or boundaries, faster and more efficiently. This will be done by upgrading the city’s existing radio communications system without building new infrastructure and saving taxpayers tens of millions of dollars.”

A spokeswoman for Wesson said he had not received the letter.

While the city will create its own voice communication system, it might still subscribe to the regional broadband system. Construction of towers for that system was scaled back earlier this year after running into opposition from county firefighters concerned about radiation from towers that would be built on stations, and from neighbors of the proposed tower sites.

The regional project’s executive director, Patrick Mallon, said the loss of the grant money will slow the completion of the radio system but not derail it.

The system, he said, “has had a number of challenges for a number of years and has seemed to be very resilient and has adapted. I do believe that [it] will be successful.”


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