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Board members struggle with spending decision

Only the future will determine whether a Crow Wing County Board spending decision Tuesday was the right one.

The board was faced with the option of a price savings of $92,700 on radios it knows it has to buy soon. But commissioners struggled with a short window in order to make a decision and whether there may not be better deals if they wait until next year.

In the end, the board voted 3-2 against moving forward with the purchase.

At issue was the significant purchase for public safety communications and a federally mandated switch that is moving radio communications to an 800 megahertz system. The change means new radios for law enforcement, fire departments and first responders. The federal government is providing funding, but local governments are expecting the cost will take a bite out of their budgets. Radios cost from $2,200 to $2,500 apiece. The mandated switch has to be completed by 2013.

Tuesday, the board was considering a promotional offer from Motorola - one of the approved vendors with the state.

Crow Wing County Sheriff's department Capt. Neal Gaalswyk asked the board to consider making the purchase now to save the $92,700. The total expected cost of $776,913.31 covers all law enforcement and first responders in Crow Wing County, including municipalities, and the county's highway department.

The fire departments, which are waiting to get an expected grant to cover the majority of the costs, were not included in the purchase plan.

The county is still in talks with area cities to see what portion of the bill they will be paying but did not have any firm agreements. Commissioners questioned whether purchasing the radios would make the cities more or less likely to share in the costs. Gaalswyk said talks with area police chiefs always included at least a 20 percent cost share. But commissioners noted those discussions have not included council members. Commissioner Rachel Reabe Nystrom said she was concerned about making a deal now after learning Brainerd had used their budgeted 800 megahertz spending to pay down its debt levy.

When commissioners struggled with whether to pay for radios for city police departments upfront without agreements in place, Gaalswyk suggested paying for 80 percent of them. Administrator Tim Houle said the radios the county purchased would still be more attractive to the police departments as they would have to pay 20 percent for radios as opposed to 100 percent.

"This may be a great deal, but I don't know," said Commissioner Paul Thiede, adding the market place may be even more competitive after January than it is today. "I'm not an impulse buyer."

Gaalswyk said it may look like an impulse but it wasn't as the group has been looking at options, meeting with affected staff members and officials, working with a consultant and crunching numbers of radios needed.

"The impulse buy would have been six months ago," Gaalswyk said. He noted Motorola is the only vendor offering mobile, portable and base station capacity in the radios.

Board Chairman Phil Trusty questioned whether buying the radios now put the county at a disadvantage as the technology changed. He said if the county bought the radios now, he didn't want to hear a request for an updated version in a year or two.

Gaalswyk got laughs when he promised not to return in January. Gaalswyk is retiring at year end and will serve as a new Cass County commissioner.

Nystrom asked Gaalswyk if he would make the purchase if he was on the board's side of the desk. He said yes.

"This is a product we need," Gaalswyk said, adding it's a product the county will be buying and now has the opportunity to pay less than anticipated. "It seems to make sense to move forward."

Gaalswyk said the current technology will be supported for years to come.

Kurt Martin of Martin Communications, a county resident who is an area representative for Motorola, said in his 30 years in the industry he's never seen pricing like this. Martin used the example of a jail dispatch center in a neighboring county that had a year-end opportunity to buy equipment for $80,000 but they waited and nine months later the bid was $125,000.

"I don't have a crystal ball," Martin said, but added there were parallels. "It's a judgment call and you have to make it with the information you have."

County Administrator Tim Houle said the county board has the classic horns of a dilemma and there was no way to provide more information to help them. Thiede said he had significant concerns about taking a year-end deal when new technology may be out coming down the road.

After a lengthy discussion, Commissioner Doug Houge made a motion to go forward with the agreement, Trusty seconded the motion. Thiede, Nystrom and Commissioner Rosemary Franzen opposed and the motion failed.

RENEE RICHARDSON may be reached at or 855-5852.