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Funding coming for long-awaited emergency radio towers

Funding coming for long-awaited emergency radio towers

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Only $5 for 5 months

CHATHAM – Local volunteer fire departments are finally seeing the financial wheels turn in favor of their wish for a pair of much-needed radio towers in the county, but it will be more than a year until the construction is finished.

The towers have been on the wish list of emergency responders for years, because in some parts of the county firefighters can’t use their radio to call for help from inside a blazing house and sheriff’s deputies can’t call for backup from within a building.

But the price tag would be nearly $1.73 million to cover the fix, a move that requires the county to take out a loan, a budgeting move that the county board of supervisors recently discussed.

“With the two additional sites, coverage is significantly higher on both portable radios and inside buildings,” Emergency Services Director Jim Davis said. “We are asking the board to consider these two sites.”

Initially, officials were looking for a county-wide upgrade. So in 2012, Harris Communication proposed a plan that guaranteed 95-percent coverage for emergency radio services, but only if they installed 11 tower sites throughout the county. The county could not afford all 11 towers, however, and officials decided to go with 8, knowing that there would be some issues with emergency radio reception.

As it stands now, there are significant radio reception issues in two areas - one at Tunstall Fire & Rescue’s coverage area in Dry Fork, and the other in the region of the Mayfield Road compactor site near Berry Hill Road.

Harris communication has cited a price tag of $1,184,000 for the radio equipment for two towers. Pittsylvania County would be responsible for leasing the site, building the tower, and bringing in the other equipment for the site, which is expected to cost roughly $600,000. The project would take 14 to 18 months to complete.

Under the proposal, Pittsylvania County would be responsible for being project managers - putting out a call for bids from contractors, known as Requests For Proposals, to build and permit the two towers, the same way they did for the original towers.

“We as the counties did that as a separate RFP for steel procurement, civil work, tower erection, fencing, etc,” Davis explained. “It helps us save a lot of money to not have to ask them to do the same thing.”

County Administrator David Smitherman and Finance Director Kim Van Der Hyde spoke to Bank of America, which holds the loan for the original eight towers. They were willing to add the additional loan amount to the current loan, and extend the loan term by two years, which would keep the payments low.

On Tuesday, supervisors asked about the difference in adding it to the same loan, versus taking out a second loan. This might be beneficial because the towers that the county has been paying on cannot make any money back for the county by renting space to such companies as cell phone and wireless internet providers because they haven’t reached the debt threshold set by tax law.

“I hate having towers out there that we could be building on, without being able to use them,” Warren said Tuesday.

Smitherman wasn’t sure that that would be the best option, but he agreed that marketing space on the towers would be good to do.

“It may be unpalatable to add several hundred thousand (dollars) a year to the short term debt burden,” Smitherman said in a phone interview. “We’re gonna see what the numbers prove out.”

Finance Committee Chairman and Staunton River District Supervisor Elton Blackstock said that he thought the Berry Hill tower should be a priority due to the expected growth at the industrial park there. He also mentioned that larger industries coming into Berry Hill might be willing to pony up a chunk of money towards the project.

“If we land a whale out there, and ask for a contribution to it, that’s doable,” Smitherman said. “We don’t have a bird in the hand to call on.”

Supervisors have asked county staff to find out more about the loan. The board will hold a public hearing about the possibility of the loan at their October 17 meeting.

Ceillie ​Simkiss reports for the Danville Register & Bee. Contact her at or (434) 791-7981.

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