Hawkins OKs grant application for emergency radio funding

Jeff Bobo • Jan 29, 2020 at 6:30 PM

ROGERSVILLE — After more than an hour of discussion Monday evening, the Hawkins County Commission voted almost unanimously to apply for a potential $400,000 community development block grant (CDBG) to help replace the county’s failing emergency radio system.

Commissioner Mike Herrell extensively questioned Emergency Management Agency Director Jamie Miller about how much the upgrades will cost, but there were a lot of questions that couldn’t be answered Monday.

Herrell also questioned Miller extensively on the condition of the current system and potential backup plans if it goes down again.

Mayor Jim Lee eventually reacted to Herrell’s persistent questioning.

“We’re trying to move forward, but you’re trying to hinder us on free money,” Lee told Herrell. “I don’t know what the problem is.” 

Task force devising a plan

As a Three Star County, Hawkins County could potentially receive a $20,000 bonus on its CDBG, which would set the maximum amount at $420,000. If that amount is awarded, Hawkins County’s required 20% match would be $84,000.

Earlier this month, Lee appointed a task force that is investigating potential options for what will likely be a total replacement of the county’s antiquated analog emergency safety radio system.

The Public Safety Committee was presented with a possible DMR (Digital Mobile Radio) system at an estimated cost of $723,459, not including the cost of equipment upgrades for Central Dispatch.

The task force is meeting weekly, but Miller and Lee stated Monday that it has not yet completed its study, and Miller noted that there is no plan of action to present to the county commission at this time.

All the commission was being asked to do Monday was approve the grant application. That approval had to be given Monday because the grant application is due in late February.

“Putting everybody’s life in jeopardy”

After experiencing outages in November, December and early January, Hawkins County’s emergency radio system is currently operating on backup equipment, much of which was purchased in 2005, and there is no more backup equipment.

Herrell, who is also chairman of the Hawkins County 911 board of directors, questioned Miller extensively about what will happen if the backup equipment goes down.

“If it goes down tonight, for example, what are we going to do to protect our law officers and EMS?” Herrell asked.

“From the get-go, as far as the outage, I’ve got district resources on standby if they need to deploy into the county with caches of radios. We’d obviously go to a vendor if we had an outage to try and get equipment in place as far as spares,” Miller said.

“So we’re going to take a chance hoping these radios don’t go down, putting everybody’s life in jeopardy until we decide if we’re going to get a grant?” Herrell responded.

“We can have 30 radios in the county in a matter of hours — I feel safe in saying — in an emergency, the same as any other county could if they had an outage. That would be a short term, and of course we would work on getting a better solution as quick as we could,” Miller said.

Miller noted that none of the radio vendors who looked at Hawkins County’s existing system said it could be repaired, so the option of a permanent fix is likely off the table. 

Grant application approved 20-0

When the task force has compiled a recommendation, that will be presented tot he commission’s Public Safety Committee, which is now meeting monthly instead of quarterly until the radio problem is resolved.

Assuming the grant is approved, the Public Safety Committee would then forward a funding request to the Budget Committee, but no funds would be spent until the full county commission approves the plan.

The grant application was approved 20-0 with Commissioner Jeff Barrett abstaining.

During the discussion, Commissioner Dawson Fields made a motion to set an $80,000 cap to the amount the county will spend on the project, which is approximately the amount it would have to pay in matching funds if the grant is approved.

However, some commissioners expressed concern that setting a spending cap would jeopardize the county’s prospects of being awarded the CDBG, and that motion was withdrawn.

Instead, the commission approved a motion by Commissioner Keith Gibson, stating the county’s expenditure was not to exceed the 20% in matching funds the county would be required to pay if the CDBG is awarded.

“Thinking outside the box”

In a separate resolution, the commission voted 15-4 with two abstentions to contract with Administrative Management Services to assist with the county’s emergency radio grant application.

Usually the county uses the First Tennessee Development District, which assists with grant applications at no fee to the county.

Lee told the commission he was “thinking outside the box” when he chose Administrative Management Services due to its track record of success, despite the fact there will be a fee.

The fee will have to be negotiated, but one number discussed was 6% of the grant.

Commissioners who voted no on Administrative Management Services included Syble Vaughan Trent, Valarie Goins, John Metz and Nancy Barker, while Barrett and Herrell abstained.