Apr 26, 2016

County narrowly misses out on state dollars for dispatch equipment

Had Park County waited a few more months to replace some of the equipment in its dispatch center, it might have saved hundreds of thousands of dollars.

County commissioners and staff expressed frustration last week that — after buying $593,616 worth of equipment in December — the state of Wyoming is now offering grants to cover 50 percent of the purchases.

City of Cody officials are also unhappy, as they rely on the county’s dispatching system and have to cover half of the nearly $600,000 bill.

“We’re feeling a little bit left out of the picture — especially since we did everything we were supposed to do and spent the money,” said Park County Chief Information Officer Mike Conners.

Park County Sheriff's Office Communications Officer Michelle Horn monitors first responder and incident status from the county's dispatch hub. File photo courtesy Park County Sheriff's Office
The county submitted a grant application last week, asking the state to reimburse half of its costs. However, that request appears dead on arrival; the grant money is meant only for entities who still have to replace their dispatch console systems.

“It’s not for entities that have already done that; there won’t be any reimbursement,” said Public Safety Communications Commission (PSCC) Chairman Mark Harshman of Casper.

The PSCC oversees WyoLink — the statewide radio communications network — and its members persuaded the Legislature to set aside $680,000 for console system upgrades in the recent budget session. The consoles help direct radio traffic for agencies like police and firefighters and connects them to other Wyoming agencies through WyoLink.

Harshman said the state grants were intended “to help those counties that could not afford it” — such as Niobrara and Crook counties. But he said the recently approved money will likely end up going to everyone who waited to upgrade.

“It’s certainly not an ideal situation,” Harshman said. “Because all of the other entities in the state funded those replacements at significant cost to themselves and didn’t wait.”

Only five of 33 entities have not yet upgraded their dispatching consoles; they're all likely to get some state help.

Of the 33 cities and counties on WyoLink’s system, 28 of them — including Park County and the City of Powell — have already replaced their consoles.

The five stragglers are the Riverton and Sheridan police departments and Crook, Niobrara and Teton counties. While they now stand to get some help from the state, Harshman said they took a risk by sticking with their aging consoles. For example, he said Niobrara County has been having trouble with its console and can’t find replacement parts.

“It’s a huge gamble on their part and it paid off,” Harshman said.

Making it more of a gamble, the going consensus had been that the state wasn’t going to offer any help. In fact, there have been rumblings that the state might actually start charging cities and counties a fee for being part of WyoLink.

When Park County commissioners spoke with local lawmakers this winter, “it was like, ‘you’ve got to be kidding me. We might get rid of the entire WyoLink project; don’t go asking for extra money,’” said Commissioner Loren Grosskopf.

Conners, the county’s CIO, said he and the City of Cody officials searched for grants before buying the $593,000 worth of dispatch equipment last year.

“They (the city) are thinking now we made a big mistake by not waiting to do this,” Conners said, but “we all came to the same conclusion (that) there’s going to be no money available.”

“We all came to the same conclusion (that) there’s going to be no money available,” said Park County Chief Information Officer Mike Conners.

Harshman noted cities and counties have known for years that they would have to upgrade their dispatching equipment by this summer.

The City of Powell was one of the first communities to join WyoLink and it generally made the required upgrades between 2007 and 2008.

The city’s roughly $739,000 communications overhaul — which included not just a new console but also radios and a new tower — was paid for with grants from various state and federal agencies.

With the looming possibility that the state may now be cutting back on its help, Powell Information Technology Manager Zack Thorington is thankful that the city has received multiple upgrades in recent years.

“Right now, we’re fortunately on the latest stuff,” Thorington said. “We lucked out.”

Harshman said Park County is the only entity to have complained about missing out on the new grant funding; he also said the county was the last entity to upgrade its consoles before the state help became available.

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