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By Jeff Horseman, Staff Writer // The Press-Enterprise
December 05, 2012; 06:29 PM

Riverside County’s upgraded radio network for police and firefighters is expected to cost an extra $7.5 million annually to run once it starts up next year — three years later than first planned — and the price tag for building the system is $24 million more than initially budgeted.

Officials insist the Public Safety Enterprise Communication System is needed to replace an outdated, ineffective network of radio towers. The expanded network, which includes 50 more towers, better protects police, firefighters and the public, they say.

The new system’s operating expenses are among the reasons the county executive office expects the sheriff’s and fire departments to have deficits when the fiscal year ends June 30. Last month, officials said they project a $9.2 million deficit for the sheriff and a $5.7 million hole in the fire budget.

Those deficits are not set in stone. Rather, they’re projections intended to give the county time to solve budget problems before they hit, County Executive Officer Jay Orr and Chief Financial Officer Ed Corser told county supervisors at a recent budget briefing.

The Board of Supervisors allocated $148 million to build the network of radio towers in 2007, and it was intended to be finished in 2010.

However, the slow pace of environmental reviews and longer-than-expected negotiations to acquire land for new radio towers pushed the timetable back, county officials said. Those delays, along with additional equipment costs, the need to buy another tower site and the need to keep a network-implementation team together longer than expected pushed the cost of the project to $172 million.

Most of the money is paying for the new towers, although a portion is going to new system-compatible radios for deputies, fire officials and other staff.

Because the new network won’t be active until 2013, the Sheriff’s Department can’t immediately recoup the increased operating costs from cities which contract with the county for police services.

The current radio network costs $6.7 million annually to run, and the upgraded network’s projected costs are $14.2 million a year. The extra money will pay for 38 staff members – some new, some existing – and for ongoing training and maintenance costs.

Major funding sources to build the network include $87 million in bonds, $53 million in cash and $2.7 million in developer fees. A $780,000 federal grant is paying to connect the network to San Diego County’s dispatch center.

The $24 million tacked on to the system’s construction budget is mainly being covered by general fund dollars, said county spokesman Ray Smith, who said he did not have an exact breakdown.

The network is one of several new spending obligations the county is incurring despite the loss of more than $200 million in ongoing revenue since the economic downturn hit the area in late 2006.

Officials are planning to expand the Indio jail to ease a shortage of beds that’s forced the release of more than 6,000 inmates since January. The expansion is expected to cost $237 million – $100 million is covered by a state grant – and cost $50 million a year to run.

By 2015, the county also will have to honor up to $188.3 million in raises guaranteed by labor contracts and granted to nonunion employees. Supervisors approved the raises so unions would go along with public pension changes expected to save $856 million over 10 years.

The county would have liked to have set money aside for the new radio system, but it couldn’t because the economic downturn dried up revenue, Smith said.

The enhanced network will add 53 radio towers to the 23 towers installed throughout the county. Once operational, the new towers should boost radio coverage from 63 percent of the county to nearly 100 percent.

Sheriff Stan Sniff said radio reception in the current system is so bad, deputies must use cell phones to talk, even in built-up areas. The county’s population growth and increased voice and data usage made the system even more obsolete, officials said.

Other county departments besides public safety will use the network, something that will come in handy during emergencies when, for example, the transportation department might be needed to clear a road, said Deputy County Executive Officer Christopher Hans.

And the new system is designed to improve communication between different public safety agencies during disasters by allowing them to share the same radio channels.

Sniff said his department will eventually ask the 12 cities it serves through contracts to chip in and cover the network’s operating costs. But those costs are factored into contracts retroactively.

Because the new system isn’t online yet, its costs can’t be recovered right away, Sniff said. In the short term, the county will have to foot more of the bill for the new towers before the cities pay their share, he added.

San Bernardino County also has started planning for a $175 million project to replace an aging emergency radio station used by most police and fire agencies in the county. Officials say the current system is so outdated, they have to hunt for replacement parts on eBay.

Last year, San Bernardino County began setting aside $24 million in each year’s budget with the goal of saving up to purchase a new digital radio communications system in five years.

Smith said San Bernardino County could use Riverside County’s radio network during emergencies if San Bernardino first-responders have compatible radios.

Also contributing to this report: Staff writer Imran Ghori,