By BREANNA SHEPHERD
Capital News Service
LANSING — A Senate bill could save taxpayers money, while improving radio communication for local law enforcement agencies.
The Michigan State Police and attorney general, however, are raising heavy static over the idea.
The bill, sponsored by Sen. Phil Hoffman, R-Horton, would require the state police director to allow local law enforcement agencies to attach their radio equipment to existing Michigan State Police towers. New towers are used for expanded coverage areas and building separate, local towers costs more than $1 million per tower.
Currently, there are two ways way local police can use the state’s towers: with permission from the State Police director or by joining the Michigan Public Safety Communications System (MPSCS) for a $25 activation fee per radio and an annual membership fee of $200 per radio.
However, the local agencies can’t attach their own equipment, which means they must use the same radio system as the state police.
Daniel Minzey, Washtenaw County sheriff, said he asked the state police to use their towers and they refused. He said to get the radio coverage needed, his county built a new tower — within two miles of the state’s.
“It seems like a waste of tax money to me that the towers are so close together. The county could’ve used state police towers and saved $1million,” Minzey said.
Hillsdale Deputy Police Chief Bill Whorley said in his city’s case it is cheaper to stay with its own system because the department has enough towers and the radios it uses are relatively inexpensive at a purchase price of $400 to $950.
He added that the local and state police often use a different radio frequency, so in order to use MPSCS, Hillsdale would have to purchase new equipment.
Ron MacDonald, director of Hillsdale County 911, said that although Hillsdale’s current radio system works fine, the more towers they can use, the better.
“More towers ensure better communication, but they are expensive and hard to find a location for,” MacDonald said. “Using state towers would save us money because all we’d have to pay for is our equipment and its maintenance.”
Both sides agree that building more towers may not be the right solution.
Capt. Tom Miller, State Police communications projects director, said he thinks local police should join the MPSCS system because it would eliminate the need for more towers without the attachment of additional equipment.
Miller said he has concerns about the towers’ abilities to handle the weight of additional equipment.
“Engineers designed the towers to handle only so much weight, and allowing local police to attach their equipment to towers could damage radio transmission by causing the towers to sway,” Miller said.
Oakland County Sheriff Michael Bouchard said provisions could be made in the bill to allow the state police room for growth.
“Later, if the local police need to take their equipment off because an engineer says so, we would be willing to do that. Right now, the state police are refusing space because of hypothetical situations, not actual need,” Bouchard said.
The bill went to a committee for discussion on Sept 19, but wasn’t finalized because of concerns by the attorney general’s office, said Mike Hansen, Senate fiscal analyst.
Hansen said the state police towers are actually owned by the State Building Authority and paid for by public bond sales. The bonds are tax exempt because they are considered by the Internal Revenue Service to be for public use.
The IRS may decide to treat the use of the towers as private if local law enforcement uses space for equipment only, instead of joining the same network. That means the bonds would no longer be tax free, Hansen said.
“Calling local law enforcement a private entity is ridiculous,” Bouchard said. “We were created by the Legislature for municipalities. We are as public as it gets.”
The attorney general’s office wasn’t available for comment.
Hoffman said the attorney general isn’t the “bad guy,” she’s just pointing out potential problems with the bill.
He said he will continue to work on the bill, introduced on Sept. 17, over the break in the Senate’s session and he hopes to get it out of committee in December, before the Legislature’s final adjournment.
“It’ll be tough to get this bill passed, but we’re going to try,” he added.
© 2002, Capital News Service, Michigan State University School of Journalism
By BREANNA SHEPHERD