Budget writers OK responder radio plan

Thursday, April 24, 2008 | 4:10 p.m. CDT; updated 3:29 a.m. CDT, Monday, July 21, 2008

JEFFERSON CITY — A $175 million plan to replace the Missouri State Highway Patrol's aging radio network with a system that also could improve communications among local emergency responders gained clearance today from legislative budget writers.

With the first chunk of money in place, the state could seek bid proposals as soon as next month, though the project itself could take two to four years to complete and 10 to 12 years to pay off, said state public safety director Mark James.

The new radio towers and interoperable communications network had encountered static just two weeks ago, when the Senate Appropriations Committee sliced funding because of concerns about costs and compatibility with local law enforcement agencies.

But Senate budget negotiators agreed today to go along with the $9 million that the House had budgeted for the initial phase of the program, and House negotiators agreed to accept some Senate wording detailing how the project would be bid out.

To gain final approval, the compromise must pass the House and Senate by the May 9 budget deadline.

Public safety officials expressed relief that their long hours of lobbying paid off.

"This is really the biggest single positive investment for all public safety statewide," James said.

The Highway Patrol's current radio network is about 50 years old. Few lawmakers questioned the need to replace it. Rather, most concerns centered on plans to make the patrol's system compatible with scores of different communications systems used by local police, fire and ambulance districts.

On any given day, various law officers, firefighters and ambulance personnel find themselves unable to communicate directly with each other when responding to events that affect various counties or regions, James said.

Some lawmakers worried that the state could direct a massive contract to design and build the system to a single company by using very precise specifications in its request for proposals, and that local governments might have to pay to upgrade their own equipment.

The Senate insisted on a provision prohibiting the Department of Public Safety from putting the radio project out to bid with "specifications that restrict the ability of interested parties to respond with proposals."

Senators also attached a provision requiring that preference be given to bidders that would allow local governments to interact with the new Highway Patrol system without having to buy new equipment themselves.

In addition to the $9 million, the budget includes $3.4 million in state funds intended to draw down a $17.5 million federal grant for local interoperable communications projects. Part of that money would set up a mutual aid radio channel accessible to all public safety personnel.

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