FORT SMITH -- The Sebastian County Quorum Court decided to use covid relief money to improve communications between first responders.
Justices of the peace on Tuesday unanimously approved spending $5.25 million in American Rescue Plan money to improve the county's emergency communication radio system. The project includes building two Arkansas Wireless Information Network towers at Sugarloaf Mountain south of Hackett and the unincorporated community of Witcherville. The network is a statewide communication system.
County Judge David Hudson told the Quorum Court via a memo the project will address communication issues law enforcement, firefighters and emergency medical services face in many parts of the county. It will also be important in supporting the county's pending consolidation of its 911 system, something the state requires following the passing of the Public Safety Act of 2019.
The county previously recommended $1.5 million be allocated for one Arkansas Wireless Information Network tower for the communications project. The change in price and scope came after the Chicago-based Motorola Solutions presented a report and project plan to both the county and Fort Smith following an evaluation of the county's communication system, according to Hudson.
Hudson, however, argued $3.5 million in American Rescue Plan money the county proposed for a consolidated 911 center could go toward this project. The county 911 fund has more than $4.2 million that can be used to address the consolidation in its place.
Jesse Freeze, area account representative for Arkansas Valley Communications, which works directly with and represents Motorola, said Fort Smith has the only two Arkansas Wireless Information Network towers in the county. Building two more towers will provide a "four-site, 12-channel simulcast system" to increase the area of coverage for first responders throughout the county, particularly outside Fort Smith.
That means first responders will get a significant increase in coverage with their walkie talkies and won't have to rely on equipment in their vehicles for communication purposes, Freeze said.
"By providing significantly more reliable handheld communications, this system will improve safety for all boots on the ground," he said. "Example: a first responder would not need to leave an active incident in order to request support. Sometimes seconds really do matter, so this will make a very, very big difference."
Freeze said the new towers will add a layer of protection for the county by increasing redundancy, allowing the system to function as a backup fail-safe in a failure scenario. In addition, Fort Smith has agreed to relinquish two channels from its existing simulcast for this project to both improve coverage in the county and support the eventual 911 center consolidation.
The Arkansas Wireless Information Network will handle the maintenance of the two new towers, with the Arkansas 911 Board paying the costs, according to Freeze. Motorola will also monitor them for the county with free, 24/7 support.
Shawn Looper, justice of the peace for District 3, made the motion to approve the $5.25 million for the project.
The Quorum Court also approved a motion by Dickie Robertson, justice of the peace for District 10, to allocate $325,000 in American Rescue Plan money to provide the county's 13 rural volunteer fire departments money to purchase personal protective equipment. They approved another motion by Robertson to allocate $50,000 of the county's relief money for physical improvements to the south entrance of the courthouse in Fort Smith as well.
Hudson said the county has been allocated $24.8 million in rescue plan money, including $10 million for general government services in accordance with a rule the U.S. Department of the Treasury issued in January, and about $14 million to use under more restrictive guidelines of the State and Local Fiscal Recovery Funds program. All this money has to be spent by Dec. 31, 2026.
The Quorum Court approved spending up to $10 million for general government services June 21.
The projects the Quorum Court approved Tuesday had been included in a larger ordinance using some of the $14 million of relief money for recommendations by the county. However, the justices of the peace didn't decide on any of these other projects.
This included a sobering center, a place to which intoxicated people who aren't dangerous or violent could be diverted from the county jail by law enforcement to receive short-term treatment.
Tuesday's action included $489,922 to establish this facility through the Guidance Center in Fort Smith and operate it from October through December. It also would have earmarked more than $2.4 million for the program through 2026, bringing the total to more than $2.9 million.
The action also included $176,958 to expand the county's mental health specialty court through the end of this year, and about $3.4 million more to keep it going through 2026.
The alternative sentencing and jail diversion program opened Jan. 1, 2021, and is paid for through the end of this year thanks to $550,000 from the Quorum Court, according to an overview of the proposal in the meeting material.
Hudson said the Quorum Court will have a follow-up discussion concerning American Rescue Plan money at its meeting Aug. 23.
The Quorum Court also approved Tuesday transferring more than $5.2 million from the county's $10 million pot of rescue plan money to the general fund, which will cover payroll and operating expenses for the Sheriff's Office, jail, jail maintenance, courthouse security, communications and mental health specialty court for the first half of this year.