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November 23, 2006
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Police chiefs challenge spending on radio gear

New system decried as already outdated

By Nancy A. Fischer - NEWS NIAGARA BUREAU
Copyright 2006, The Buffalo News
All Rights Reserved

The Niagara County Sheriff's Office is making plans to soon open a new multimillion-dollar communications center, but some local police chiefs are calling the system outdated before it opens.

Those chiefs also have called into question and raised concerns over spending of federal homeland security dollars, especially if that money is being used to continue the unpopular analog communication system. Chiefs from cities and towns across the county have asked County Manager Gregory D. Lewis and Sheriff Thomas A. Beilein to invest in a statewide wireless system of communications.

Both those men said they are not comfortable jumping into an untested wireless system. Erie and Chautauqua counties will be the first test counties for the new system, Beilein said. "Let's learn from them."

The sheriff said officials are not happy about what they are learning about the coverage of the wireless system, especially in cases in which deputies must leave their patrol cars to investigate complaints.

Town of Niagara Chief H. James Suitor has been one of the most outspoken opponents of the current county radio system. He has accused Lewis of pursuing the "Cadillac of operating systems."

"Forget the Cadillac," Suitor said. "I'd take a Yugo if it works."

Some police agencies and fire companies can't communicate effectively with each other right now if they are working on a joint call, Suitor said, because their communications systems are incompatible.

"Why not take our homeland security funding and invest in an emergency system where we can talk to each other? Let's do something right in this project, even if we just have to take little bites," Suitor said.

Lockport Police Chief Neil Merritt said the most frustrating part is that the six chiefs from the cities of Lockport, North Tonawanda, Niagara Falls and towns of Niagara, Lewiston, and Middleport have not been made part of county decision-making. "I don't ever recall agreeing to money going to a central dispatch," Merritt said. "I attended some of the meetings, but it seemed clear that the county was going to spend the money any way they wanted."

"We are the first state in the nation to [offer statewide wireless] and the state is spending $2 billion. Erie and Chautauqua counties will be putting up towers, but Niagara County has not signed on. If money is available, we can be a partner. But it would mean abandoning their project out there [at the Sheriff's Office]." The sheriff and county manager "are portraying us as whiners, but we chiefs represent 65 percent of the population," Merritt said. "Why are we being left out of the decision-making process?"

Lewis and Beilein said the issue has been unfairly portrayed by the chiefs. "When we started getting homeland security funding [in 2004], we did ask the chiefs what their needs were," Beilein said. "We prioritized different things to be done, and one of the biggest things was communications equipment. We asked them to tell us what they wanted.

"This homeland security money did not go into the communications center. This went to improve communications with the agencies we dispatch for. We also asked for a wish list in 2005, and they told us what they wanted. Some of the departments have not bothered to order the equipment." Beilein said some homeland security money has gone for a legitimate expense in the new communications center.

"We had begun building the communications center before 9/11, and it was not [made bullet-proof with barriers and fencing], and it should have been. The threat just wasn't there" before the terrorist attacks, Beilein said. About half of the funding for the $3.5 million communications center was offset by a funding stream called E-911 dollars.

That money came from a cell phone tax that is designed to go to law enforcement, not homeland security money, Lewis said.

However, Lewis said, the attention from the chiefs did lead to an audit in which the county discovered $288,000 of homeland security money had been improperly allocated for consoles for the communications center. Lewis said he will ask for this transaction to be put on hold since it is not in keeping with plans for homeland security funding plans. Beilein called the meetings between the chiefs more like an attack.

"There is a lot of disinformation out there," he said. "They are jumping up pointing fingers. I'm being accused of misspending money, hiding money. All without provocation. That doesn't make for good team communications." Lewis said, "The chiefs had a hard time leaving their titles at the door. There were rivalries, personal agendas. It's not wrong, and some ideas may have had their good points, but everyone has to work together. The lesson we learned after 9/11 is that we need a holistic response."

Lewis said goals and objectives for spending homeland security money were part of a recent study.

When we first received the money, [over the last two years] we divided it broadly," he said. "We were buying time to get better prepared. But now we have targeted the money and will be true to our plan."

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