Investigation scrutinizes costs for new Sheriff’s Office, Jail and 911 towers

NORWICH – Chenango County’s 911 communications system was scheduled to go live this month, but with installation adjustments – and a final cash call – officials don’t expect to see the light at the end of the tunnel (or in this case, tower) until fall.

The project has been underway for more than a decade. It replaces a system of three towers constructed in the 1970s: one in Otselic, one in Coventry and one on Barnes Hill in Norwich. The three gave coverage to only about 25 percent of the county. Replacement parts simply didn’t exist for the antiquated microwave system, and the towers themselves weren’t tall enough to support newer, more technologically advanced antennas.

“I don’t know how many times I was told if it went down, we would be done,” said longtime Chenango County Board of Supervisors Chairman and former police officer Richard B. Decker, R-North Norwich.

When the county’s now nine-tower system goes live in September or October, 98 percent of the county will be covered at a 95 percent rate. A state-of-the art 911 communications system is something that Chenango County has never had before and can now be proud of, Decker said during a recent interview.

“With public safety as a cornerstone in the county, this is what we were after. We can communicate easily. It’s important to put safety first,” he said.

The county board’s decision in February to make a final cash infusion of $200,000 to the project’s consulting engineers wasn’t without question, however. Supervisor Jerry Kreiner, R-Plymouth, said he was frustrated that the engineering consultants weren’t “looking down the road for us” to avoid more costs. Supervisor James B. Bays, D-Smyrna, concurred, saying, “They had their responsibilities, now we are paying additional money for it.”

A handful of supervisors have repeatedly questioned multiple aspects of the new 108,000 square foot Public Safety Facility on Upper Ravine Road in the Town of Norwich as well as the 911 tower project – especially because a 1 percent sales tax was imposed county-wide to afford them. But it has been Supervisor Peter C. Flanagan, D-Preston, who most often raised questions through the years about the funding details.

A tally of expenses and revenues obtained from the county treasurer’s office shows the cost of the Public Safety Facility capital building project to be $25.2 million and the Public Safety Communications capital building project to be $5.8 million. When combined, the total $31 million amount is a far cry from what Flanagan said was an approved budget of $26 million for both phases of an overall Public Safety Facility project. (See sidebar.)

When the new Sheriff’s Office and Jail on Upper Ravine Road in Norwich opened in 2007, former Sheriff Thomas J. Loughren and Chairman Decker publicly announced that it was built for about $1 million under the $26 million originally budgeted. Flanagan said he took particular exception to those claims, further pointing to the treasurer’s office data that doesn’t entirely account for “about $3 million” that, as he recalled it, was set aside for “communications.”

A large portion of the $5 million overage can be chalked up to the fact that the three towers originally targeted ballooned into a total of nine, including the main tower at the site. But, indeed, when the communications capital building project was approved in 2007, Chairman Richard B. Decker often referred to it as “Phase II.”

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