County Mayor's Office

Hawkins County commissioners will be asked Monday to allocated almost $510,000 in unrestricted state COVID stimulus funding toward upgrading the county emergency radio system from analog to digital.

The allocation was recommended on Sept. 9 by the Ad Hoc Committee, which was established to help the commission determine how best to spend the $11.1 million in federal COVID stimulus funding, as well as $509,858 in state COVID stimulus funding.

On Monday the commission’s Budget Committee voted 5-1 with one abstention to forward that Ad Hoc recommendation to the full commission.

Budget Committee chairman Mike Herrell informed the committee Monday that Ad Hoc Committee chairman Randy Patterson had resigned. Herrell appointed Josh Gilliam to take Patterson’s place on the Ad Hoc Committee.

Patterson announce his resignation after the Sept. 9 Ad Hoc Committee. During that meeting the committee voted in a split decision to recommend using the $509,858 state COVID stimulus funds toward the county emergency radio system.

Those state COVID funds are unrestricted.

Commissioner Mark DeWitte, who serves on the Ad Hoc Committee, told the Budget Committee Monday that although it was a split decision he believes “they’re all on board” with that recommendation now.

Ad Hoc Committee member Woody Boyd, who voted against the recommendation on Sept. 9, told the Budget Committee Monday he now approves.

”Time to move forward on this radio system”

The County Commission already allocated $425,000 to upgrade the county’s emergency radio system, of which $250,000 was grant funding. Much of that project entails upgrades to antenna towers to reduce radio dead spots in the more rural and mountainous areas of the county.

Equipment for the radio project has been slow to arrive due to COVID related delays in the supply chain.

The $509,858 in state stimulus would be in addition to the $425,000, and would upgrade the radio system from analog to digital. The digital upgrade will further reduce dead spots and allow officers at different ends of the county to communicate with each other.

The reason for the Sept. 9 split vote on the Ad Hoc Committee was concern over other needs of fire departments that could also be addressed with that unrestricted state funding.

Since that Sept. 9 meeting, however, the county has learned that approximately $3.4 million of its $11.1 million in federal stimulus will be unrestricted as well. The consensus was that many of those fire department needs can now be covered with the unrestricted federal funds.

“It’s time to move forward on this radio system, getting it to where it needs to be,” DeWitte told the Budget Committee Monday. “There’s no use having the people who are working on the towers comes back twice to change things when we go to digital.”

”Their coverage area is going to be great”

Volunteer fire departments will remain on analogue radio systems after the digital switch.

Mayor Jim Lee told the Budget Committee that volunteer firefighters will be equipped with dual mode radios that communicate with digital and analog systems so they can communicate with police and EMS who will be on digital systems.

“The system we’re putting up right now is analog,” Lee said. “Everything we’ve got coming in now is analog. But when I ordered the repeater system I ordered analog/digital. You can do either one. That gave us a chance to later upgrade to digital.”

Lee added, “Now is a good chance to upgrade to digital before we even install the system. What we’re putting up now will be the best radio system this county has ever had. As far as the fire departments still on analog, their coverage area is going to be great. The only thing DMR (digital) does is add connectivity for a unit on the lower end (of the county) to be able to community with a unit on the upper end.”

”Not in any rush to spend the federal money”

That $3.4 million of unrestricted federal stimulus is compensation for lost county revenue due to COVID.

Finance director Eric Buchanan recommended against spending any of the federal stimulus funding until he and staff complete a 10 week seminar on the rules and regulations for those funds. The state is also opening a website that will review expenditures to ensure they meet state and federal guidelines.

The county has until 2024 to spend the federal funds, and can also review lost of revenue due to COVID annually for three more years. Buchanan said there’s a possibility that over the next three years the majority, if not all of the $11.1 million in federal stimulus will become unrestricted due to ongoing loss of revenue.

DeWitte noted that the Ad Hoc Committee has a mindset that the federal stimulus won’t be spent at this time. The focus of committee is to gather requests, and later make recommendations to the county commission regarding the federal funds.

“We know we’re not in any rush to spend the federal money,” DeWitte said. “It might seem like a rush to spend the state money, but in my opinion, we need to catch this radio system now, instead of going one way, and then going another way and spending additional money.”

DeWitte added, “The money we allocated in the commission is being spent on the tower sites. There’s no new radios in that $425,000. I know it seems like we’re dragging our feet on these towers. We’re not. There’s equipment on the way to get them done. I just don’t want to see the towers have to be done twice.”

Commission Ray Jessee cast the only no vote, citing concern that radios for fire departments weren’t included in this allocation. Herrell abstained, stating he needs more information.

The next Ad Hoc Committee meeting is set for Oct. 5 at 6 p.m. in the Hawkins County Courthouse.