County's 800-MHz radio system could fall behind eight months

By Scott Shenk - Staff Writer

The county’s new $8.5 million emergency radio system almost certainly will not begin operating by the Aug. 23 deadline.

Even the best laid-plans often go astray, county officials say of problems with installation of Fauquier’s new 800 MHz system.

Critics say county officials have mishandled the project and misled the public.

The contract between Fauquier and Motorola Inc. called for the system to begin operating 547 days after "Notice to Proceed is granted."

The board approved the contract Feb. 19, 2002. The notice to proceed took effect three days later.

The 800-MHz system will serve the sheriff’s office and local fire and rescue units. The sophisticated digital system will replace 40-year-old radios that provide spotty coverage.

"We might be able to do some testing this fall," Assistant County Administrator Tony Hooper said.

However, the county has yet to obtain sites for two of the five towers necessary for the new system. And, upon securing sites, the county still must hire a company to build the towers.

Testing should take place during summer or fall, when trees have the thickest foliage, according to officials. Testing without foliage would not provide an accurate assessment of the system’s design and construction.

So Motorola may be unable to begin testing the system until May or April 2004.

"Right now, that looks like it’s likely to be the situation," Mr. Hooper said.

Supervisor Joe Winkelmann (Center District) figures the system has a "50-50" chance of being operational by the end of this year.

The process the board of supervisors used chose the 800-MHz system was difficult and controversial.

Critics claim the county not only bought the wrong system but that officials paid too much.

Critics continue to cite failing 800-MHz systems in other counties and they warn of cell phone interference within that frequency range. Nextel and the Federal Communications Commission could decide to re-align 800-MHz frequencies, which could cost counties such as Fauquier a lot of money.

Warrenton resident George Tolis, who works for a defense contractor, figures the county could pay $30 million over 25 years to operate and maintain the system.

A longtime critic of the 800 system, Mr. Tolis believes board members and county officials have glossed over the problems.

"You have to look at what they’ve said and what has actually happened," Mr. Tolis said.

Marshall resident Jim Borland, another critic of the 800 system and as board of supervisors candidate in the Nov. 4 election, agrees.

Board members wrongly made "assumptions about using certain towers," Mr. Borland said.

"It was a massive screw-up when the county told citizens" obtaining towers would present no problems, Mr. Tolis said. "It was a totally botched attempt by people who aren’t qualified to . . . manage a project of this magnitude with this level of technical content. I mean, it’s not like putting in a swimming pool."

County officials admit the process has proven more difficult than expected.

"Probably like anything, you expect it to take four months and it takes eight months," Mr. Winkelmann said.

The process of choosing the 800-MHz system "was a very highly-charged political process and decision," he added.

The county has struggled most with securing the necessary towers.

Supervisors Winkelmann and Harry Atherton (Marshall District) both opposed the 800 system. Mr. Atherton was the lone dissenting vote. Mr. Winkelmann voted for the system because there was not enough opposition.

The other three board members — Sharon McCamy (Lee), Larry Weeks (Scott) and Ray Graham (Cedar Run) — failed to return phone messages this week.

Mr. Winkelmann and Mr. Atherton said the tower problems blindsided the board.

Mr. Winkelmann blamed American Tower Corp. The county negotiated for a year with the ATC in an attempt to lease space on towers near Morrisville and on Blue Mountain near Paris.

"We didn’t know we’d be gouged by Ebenezer Scrooge," Mr. Winkelmann said of ATC.

The company sought $2,400 monthly rent for use at the Morrisville tower and $625 a month at Blue Mountain, according to Mr. Hooper.

Mr. Atherton said board members relied too much on Motorola.

"It probably was not smart for us. To rely on Motorola’s assessment that the towers were readily available was probably overly optimistic," he said.

Still, board members had fair warning of potential problems in a Jan. 11, 2002, memo from County Attorney Paul McCulla.

"Upwards of (four towers) may require payment of rent over the term of years to the tower owner," Mr. McCulla wrote. "Present negotiations indicate that American Tower Corporation may require a monthly rental of $5,000 on one tower and the other tower owner may require rental in the amount of at least $3,000."

Tower rent could cost the county $6 million over 25 years, almost three times the estimated cost, Mr. McCulla added.

The county attorney noted other potential problems:

• The county may have to "pay equipment storage costs along with remobilization fees" if it causes a delay in implementing the system.

• If the system requires more than five towers, Motorola would have to equip them. But, the county would have to obtain sites and possibly construct the towers.

While the tower problems probably will delay system installation, county officials believe owning the structures will save money.

Mr. Winkelmann called the failed negotiations with ATC a "silver lining."

The new towers won’t come without costs, though.

The county already spent $360,000 to build a 300-foot tower on Mountain View Road at the federal government’s Warrenton Training Center, just west of town.

The other two towers combined could cost $351,500.

The county this week began advertising for bids on the towers’ construction. The board hopes to hire a company before its June 16 meeting.

The county will pay $15,000 for three acres off Ensors Shop Road near Morrisville for one tower.

Getting a site in northern Fauquier will prove more difficult.

The county wants a site on Blue Mountain in the state’s G. Richard Thompson Wildlife Management Area. The county would share the tower with the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries, which owns the property, and the Virginia Department of Transportation, which would help pay for the construction.

County officials continue to negotiate with state game commission representatives. The process is moving slowly because federal government agencies also must approve the deal.

If the county were to buy the Blue Mountain property or lease it for more than five years, the board of supervisors would have to hold a public hearing.

But, the county wants a five-year lease for the site.

Mr. Hooper said the county is not avoiding a public hearing. Fauquier seeks the short-term lease "just to get the construction under way," he said.

Mr. Atherton and Mr. Winkelmann worry about the 800-MHz system’s future costs.

Mr. Winkelmann said he instructed Mr. Hooper to produce a "life-cycle budget" for the board and citizens.

"I don’t know why this is becoming an issue," Mr. Hooper said of the budget project.

Mr. Atherton, however, deems it important.

"I’m not fully convinced that if we pass testing that we’re home free," the Marshall District supervisor said. "I don’t want to see increased costs in this system, because it wasn’t a cheap one to begin with."

You may contact Scott Shenk at 347-5522, extension 26, or by e-mail at sshenk@citizenet.com