New 800 MHz radios don’t work inside buildings in Little Falls

City asked to pay $9,500-plus for maintenance, electricity each year for additional equipment on east side water tower

By Terry Lehrke, News Editor 

There’s a little problem with the new 800 megahertz (MHz) radios for law enforcement officers and other public safety personnel in the county — they don’t work inside buildings located in Little Falls.

Inside a building in Little Falls, to call for assistance, back-up or medical services, the trick is to get close to a window to get reception. And while that may be a good work-around for not-so-critical events, there are circumstances when a window is out of reach that it could mean tragedy for a citizen or officer in need of help.

The agencies affected include the Police Department, Fire Department, Sheriff’s Department, ambulance service, first response teams or any public agency using the radios to communicate.

To correct the problem, the county has asked to install additional equipment on the east side water tower in Little Falls to boost reception so those radios work inside buildings. It is an expensive fix, costing nearly $1 million, Morrison County Sheriff Michel Wetzel told the Little Falls City Council during its work session, Monday.

But, because in correcting the issue, Camp Ripley will also benefit from the boost in frequency and added capacity over the course of five – 10 years and beyond, the state of Minnesota “came to the table real hard,” said Wetzel.

In addition to fixing the issue of transmission inside buildings, the equipment will also provide simulcast transmission, instead of multicast. This allows the radios to use several towers at once, as opposed to just one.

“What was a $1 million fix is now a real manageable number,” he said. When the county initially bonded $1.54 million for the equipment in May 2011, about $300,000 was set aside to deal with possible issues.

“We’re talking about the county chipping in $270,000. The state and Camp Ripley and other entities are adding big amounts of money too,” said Wetzel. “Little Falls wouldn’t be on the hook for buying any equipment.”

While the county wasn’t looking for money from the city for equipment, Wetzel did ask the Council to come to the table, because it is the city of Little Falls that would benefit the most from the added equipment.

Morrison County will have an obligation of about $62,000 per year, said Wetzel, which counts all the different cover sites.

“If we add that tower site in Little Falls, it’s going to tack on about $5,000 additionally to that amount and will add about $9,000 to the Motorola maintenance contract (annually),” he said.

Camp Ripley will pay part of that, as will the state.

“But those are the two figures that we’re looking for some help from Little Falls for,” said Wetzel.

The city was asked for ongoing financial help with maintenance of the software, as well as paying for electricity used by the equipment, to the tune of $9,500 a year for the maintenance and an unknown amount for electricity.

Wetzel said he knew it would all come down to the question of whether Little Falls should have to pay more.

“We have money left in our bond. You guys paid the bond just like people living in Genola and everywhere else paid the bond, so that $270,000 is part of the bond everybody has helped pay,” he said. “The reason we’re hoping Little Falls will come to the table and offer money for ongoing maintenance is the in-building coverage issue.”

Little Falls is bigger — it has more people and more buildings and trees, which interrupt tower service and its residents are provided with more services, said Wetzel.

Cities like Genola don’t have a police department or a fire department, he said.

“Sometimes when the city is large enough, when their citizens demand some of those extra services, cities do incur some extra costs,” said Wetzel.

“Certainly if the city says ‘No, we’re not going to do it,’ we’re going to keep plugging away trying to find ways to do it,” said Wetzel.

County Administrator Deb Gruber had done some research about what kind of electrical costs the city may be looking at in addition to the requested $9,500.

What she found was that some cities found the cost to be negligible, while others said it cost $3,500, and had no accurate numbers to give the Council.

The Council will consider the request at a later date.

Little Falls City Council Briefs

In other business Monday, the Little Falls City Council:

• Agreed during its work session to try having a porta-potty at Maple Island Park for a trial period this fall. The bathrooms at Maple Island Park are currently locked at 6 p.m. There was concern expressed by Mayor Cathy VanRisseghem that the porta-potty would be vandalized. The fall is a test period to see whether a port a-potty would be beneficial over an entire summer season;

• During its regular meeting received the Little Falls Police Department report. In 2011, the Police Department handled 6,800 calls for service. The overall crime rate in 2011 was slightly higher than in 2010, but remains low to previous years. In 2011, Part 1 and 2 crimes cleared by arrest was 73 percent;

• Approved paying an additional cost of $4,964.69 to Blacktop Renovators for painting crosswalks stop bars, arrows, yellow curbs, etc. for the 2012. The funds will be charged to the Street Department budget. Public Works Director Jerry Lochner said the original bid did not include stop bars and crosswalks at several off-ramps and an intersections, or pavement arrows near Lindbergh Drive South and yellow curbing along the schools and hospital areas. Councilman Brian-Paul Crowder said it was hard to say no since the work was already done. Councilman Jeremy Hanfler questioned why the extra work was not a part of the original bid;

• Approved an agreement with Senior Citizens Inc. that members of the Senior Center would be allowed to rent the Senior Center in Little Falls for birthdays and other parties;

• Approved a professional services agreement with Mead and Hunt Inc. of Wisconsin, for a Phase 2 environmental assessment documentation for a proposed crosswind runway, at the Little Fals airport;

• Approved a data practices policy as part of the general city policy. Co-city Administrator Lori Kasella said the city has had such a policy as part of its personnel policy, but needed one as part of its general policy;

• Approved a change in public hearing procedures, which would allow for people to speak their minds, whether for or against a project and not requiring a rebuttal period;

• Called for a public hearing Tuesday, Sept. 4, at 7:30 p.m. in the Council Chambers at City Hall to consider a request by CRM Little Falls LLC, to amend the JOBZ business subsidy agreement with Phoenix Plastics. Phoenix Plastics is in the process of transferring ownership of the business to CRM Little Falls LLC, and is requesting the JOBZ agreement to be transferred to CRM as well;

• Adopted by resolution naming Wendy Zylka, city administrative assistant as an election administrator and Kasella as the assistant election administrator;

• Accepted a $25 anonymous donation for the Police Department; a $7,157 donation from the Little Falls Fire Relief Association for a skid unit; a $240 donation and a $2,500 from the Little Falls Lindbergh Lions for Leadership Lindyland and the West Side Improvement Association, respectively; a $500 and $1,500 donation from the Little Falls Lions for the Dam Festival and Lions Park, respectively and a $341.43 donation from the Ron Johnson estate for Carnegie Library; and

• Heard Crowder request the garage sale sign issue be placed on an agenda in the near future to correct the problem residents are having in advertising their sales. Mayor Cathy VanRisseghem said the issue was on the agenda for the Planning Commission’s Monday meeting.

The next meeting for the Little Falls City Council will be held Monday, Aug. 20, at 7:30 p.m. in Council Chambers at City Hall. Prior to this meeting, the Council will hold a work session, beginning at 6:30 p.m. in the conference room.