Supervisors Attorney Says They Are Responsible For Emergency Radio System

Emergency Management Commission members met on Thursday evening to discuss their 2018-19 budget.

Emergency Management Commission members met on Thursday evening to discuss their 2018-19 budget.

Oskaloosa, Iowa – A debate has erupted in past months between the Mahaska County Board of Supervisors and the Mahaska County Emergency Management Commission.

Emergency responders are in need of a new communications system. The system has been failing, leaving communication with each other often difficult, and at times impossible.

An initial review of what would need to be done by consultants Elert, stated a replacement system would cost between 2.6 to 6.3 million dollars, depending upon what platform and equipment were ultimately needed.

The reason the search is on for a new radio system is because of an FCC decision to narrowband the frequencies that emergency services use.

Narrowbanding of radio frequencies by the FCC has forced communities out of their traditional radio systems and into the new 700 to 800 MHz radio systems. Narrowbanding effectively cut the communication highway in half. Formerly, a radio frequency would run on bandwidths of 25 kHz, but with narrowbanding, that highway is now just 12.5 kHz.

This move to narrowband took full effect in January of 2013.

Shortly after that time, emergency responders not only in Mahaska County but around the state and nation began to have issues communicating, even during routine traffic stop situations. Once emergency personnel enters a structure, their ability to maintain contact becomes even more difficult.

In the FCC Narrowbanding Booklet provided to emergency responders, it states, “Interference may occur. Even prior to January 1, 2013, your operations on wideband (25 kHz) equipment may become increasingly subject to interference from new adjacent-channel narrowband systems that are being implemented by other licensees in the vicinity of your operating area.”

“We need to do something before somebody gets hurt,” said Mahaska County Sheriff Russ Van Renterghem, at the May 22, 2017 board of supervisors meeting.

The Mahaska County Supervisors paid for the initial study, and the second study to develop the request for proposal, or RFP, was paid for by Mahaska County Emergency Management.

At the May 22, 2017 meeting, Mahaska County Supervisor Mark Groenendyk asked who would be the owner of the new radio system. “Who’s going to own it? Is the county going to own it, the supervisors? Or is the EMA going to own it, the Emergency Management Commission?”

The Mahaska County Supervisors then decided to have the Emergency Management Commission (EMC) build and then fund the project. Something the EMC board then took on.

The Mahaska County Emergency Management Commission is comprised of elected officials from each political entity within the county. Only elected officials can vote on budgetary items.

Moving forward with the RFP, the tension between the board of supervisors and the emergency management commission has continued to grow as the discussion on funding the new system then took center stage.

Groenendyk has then questioned how the system would be paid back, and if EMA has the power to levy taxes.

A letter from the Iowa Attorney Generals Office outlined their opinion that emergency management has the power to do so.

The Mahaska County Board of Supervisors said they would be willing to bond for the system.

After nearly half a year of debate about funding and ownership, Mahaska County Supervisor Mark Groenendyk recently got approval to spend $7,500 on an attorney for the county to get an opinion on who would own the new radio system.

The board selected Daniel Gonnerman to give them that opinion. Gonnerman is also representing the county in their lawsuit against the 28E agreement over the regional airport.

Gonnerman gave the supervisors a brief overview of his opinion on those sections of Iowa Code.

Gonnerman said that he believes that the board of supervisors isn’t obligated to fund the radio infrastructure requests from the 911 board or emergency management commission.

Gonnerman said he doesn’t believe that emergency management has the authority to fund infrastructure, and can’t own property.

“I’ve been really asking who has the authority to build the infrastructure in our county,” said Groenendyk to Gonnerman. “We got a letter back from the attorney general stating that the EMA authority has no bonding authority.”

“That’s when I started questioning whether it if it’s our responsibility to provide for the law enforcement radios and communications and so forth, or if it’s the ema’s,” said Groenendyk.

Groenendyk said he believes, through his research, that the 911 board only has control of the 911 center. “Who really has the authority, or who’s supposed to be going out there, doing the work, investing in the public safety. The way it started looking to me is, it’s the political entities, ie, the counties and the cities taking care of their responsibilities within their own jurisdiction for the public safety of not only the people but the law enforcement and responders as well.”

Gonnerman said he believes it’s correct that the county is responsible for the physical structures and infrastructure to provide that protection. “I think it does fall on the county.”

“So basically, the responsibility falls back onto the city and counties to take care of their own jurisdictions safety and well-being of the personnel, people and the responders. It doesn’t fall to emergency management,” said Groenendyk.

The ownership question has now returned full circle. The initial request from emergency management was for the board of supervisors to build and fund the system.

After discussion, it was decided to have the emergency management commission build and fund the radio system.

Now, the supervisors say that Iowa Code dictates that they are responsible for the system.

Gonnerman said he believes that the county is also responsible for funding 911 dispatchers, something that emergency management has done for the past few years. “Even though they’ve combined for the purposes of administration, and probably economies of scale, that they are overseeing the same type of activities, each one of those boards is still limited to its own funding source.”

Gonnerman’s advice to the board of supervisors differs from legal advice given to the Emergency Management Commission by attorney Carl Salmons.

Salmons resigned this week after a Mahaska County official objected to his participation as the attorney for Mahaska County Emergency Management Commission.

The county official expressed concern that there could be a conflict since Salmons is also an attorney for Mahaska County’s insurance.

In total, the initial RFP cost $40,000 and now awaits a decision by the commission, which is now waiting on the selection of a new attorney to help them navigate Iowa law, to determine which entity is legally responsible to build and own the emergency radio system.

The board of supervisors has now decided to retain another radio expert to help them navigate what is needed to help emergency responders communicate. They decided to go with Rey Freeman, a consultant on radio systems.

That initial fee to Freeman for a review is $7,500. According to documents Oskaloosa News received through a Freedom of Information request, if the supervisors continue to work with Freeman, it could cost the taxpayers an additional $52,000, on top of the $40,000 already paid to Elert for their work.

“When we’re talking about spending up to 9 or 10 million dollars, that seven thousand dollars is small in the long run to make sure it’s done properly,” said Groenendyk.

No company has officially bid on the radio system, and the best early estimate on the cost from Elert was 2.6 to 6.3 million dollars.

Mahaska County Supervisor Mark Doland asked Groenendyk how long that review by Freeman would take. “It would just be weeks I am assuming.”

Groenendyk has been in contact with Rey Freeman since on or before July of 2017, and says he contacted other counties about their work with Freeman. “They say he’s more involved, he’d be in contact with you more. I’ve seen Elert twice since May.”

“I’d like to know where we stand,” said Groenendyk. ‘I’m just going to be honest with you.”

“I’ve asked the EMA lawyers just to have a conversation with the chairman and the director and the lawyer, saying I’d like to know about this stuff. I was basically told I’m on a need to know basis. How am I suppose to keep you guys informed if I’m just….”

“If I could just interject for just a moment Mark,” said Mahaska County Sheriff Russ Van Renterghem. “The chairman told you it was on a need to know basis?”

“Yeah, about 2 months ago,” replied Groenendyk.

“I’ve never told you that Mark,” said Van Renterghem, who is also the chairman for the Emergency Management Commission.

“The commission members told me that,” said Groenendyk. “I was wanting to know about the state contracts and the Racom contracts and I was wanting to know why the rest of the commission wasn’t more informed of the communication going on with Mr. Salmons, and you guys said, ‘well, down the road you’ll understand, we’ll inform you then.'”

“Mr. Salmons did not want that put out until he reviewed the contract with the SARA system. Chairman never told you that was on a need to know basis, ” said Van Renterghem.

“No, the commission members did,” said Groenendyk.

“We got into that discussion because that was micromanaging. It’s difficult for everyone to make decisions if nobody really knows the big picture of what’s really going on,” said Groenendyk.

“You know, I’ll be honest. I’ve had commission members come up to me since the last meeting, it’s emailed to them. That RFP was emailed to them on a Friday night or Saturday, and some got it hand delivered to them, and said we’re supposed to understand 250, 350 pages, never really discussed. We got three days to review it. They are supposed to know it and vote on it,” said Groenendyk.

A request for information by Oskaloosa News on who was emailed the RFP came back that no members of the commission were emailed the documents, except some members of the communications committee who already had the document from an earlier discussion. All members were hand-delivered a copy of the RFP.

After Monday’s Supervisors meeting, the Emergency Management Commission, thirteen members in all, met on Thursday evening.

Taken off the agenda was discussion and/or potential action on the RFP with Elert because the group was now without legal counsel due to a request from a Mahaska County official. “That county official was upset that Carl represents our insurance company and the EMA. Heartland, in turn, called Carl and gave him an ultimatum. Do you want to work for Heartland, or do you want to work for the Mahaska County EMA,” said Van Renterghem. “That’s the reason we don’t have an attorney right now.”

“Immediately prior to resigning, he gave me one last piece of advice as legal counsel, to remove anything from the agenda associated with the RFP until we can get another attorney hired,” explained Van Renterghem.

The commission did remove $300,000 from their budget that was earmarked to make payments on a bond for the new radio system in the fiscal year 2018-19 that starts in July.

“I would strongly recommend removing it [$300,000]. The supervisors are going to take it over and take care of it,” said Groenendyk. ” I think it’s the supervisor’s responsibility. So I think the supervisors are going to take on the responsibility.”

When the vote to approve the budget was presented, Groenendyk asked, “So you want to try and put all of this on the county’s levy? That’s what I’m asking.”

“I think that’s the only choice the EMA has,” said New Sharon Mayor Dustin Hite.

“No, there’s about four different choices,” said Groenendyk.

Groenendyk said he has concerns that the EMA levy can cover “the 911 side”.

“I think it can,” said Hite. “And I think we modeled our system off of Johnson County when we did it.”

The overall budget was approved, with the exception of the $300,000 for bond payments. All members, with the exception of Groenendyk, approved the budget. Groenenkyk shared that he has concerns about if the commission can levy the funds.

The Mahaska County Board of Supervisors hasn’t put into place the money to build a radio system in their budget for the 2018-19 fiscal year.

Groenendyk did tell those in attendance that the radio system would be paid for by property tax valuations. “That’s the only way supervisors can tax by law.”

Past articles regarding emergency radio discussion:
July 30, 2017Radio System Discussion Waiting On Answer From Supervisors
August 9, 2017Supervisors Take Accusatory Stand Towards Sheriff
September 1, 2017EMA Commission Continues Radio Discussion
November 5, 2017Emergency Management Commission Debates Legal Counsel
November 9, 2017Supervisors Set To Battle E911 Funding Options
January 12, 2018Groenendyk Continues To Wrestle With EMA Commission
January 17, 2018Supervisors Debate Radio System Ownership

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