Alachua County agrees to buy public safety system for $8M pending Gainesville commission approval

The Alachua County Commission on Tuesday, pending the approval of the Gainesville City Commission, unanimously approved the purchase of the trunked radio system from Gainesville Regional Utilities for $8 million.

The deal could put to bed a long heated debate over the management of a system used by first responders in emergency situations.

County and city staff agreed to terms of a contract that allow the Alachua County government to take ownership and operation of the massive public safety radio system beginning Oct. 1.

"I think this provides us with the stability that our countywide users need, including all of the citizens of Gainesville," County Commissioner Ken Cornell said. I think it's a good use of ARPA (American Rescue Plan Act) funds. I'm really glad that city staff and county staff seem to be on the same page."

Telecommunicators at the 911 dispatch area in the Combined Communications Center answer calls at the Alachua County Sheriff's Office in Gainesville in 2020.
Telecommunicators at the 911 dispatch area in the Combined Communications Center answer calls at the Alachua County Sheriff's Office in Gainesville in 2020.

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The agreement stipulates that payments from all users will be at a set cost for five years. GRU will pay a total of $820,000 during that time, while Gainesville's general government side will pay about $4 million.

Alachua County Fire Rescue Chief Harold Theus said Tuesday that he also has reached five-year agreements with most of the system's other users.

"With the income that that's going to bring in, we will be able to purchase the radio system, we will be able to expand the radio system without financing anything, and still maintain an operating cost that we are currently paying for the radio system, somewhere in the neighborhood of $1.2 million per year," Theus said.

The Gainesville City Commission, however, must still approve the sale during its meeting on Thursday.

Gainesville Commissioner Adrian Hayes-Santos expressed concerns about the sale in December, saying he doesn't "think it’s in the best interest of the city to sell it."

“Selling off the entire trunked radio system is a substantial part of our telecommunications, and it would have to go to the voters,” he said.

But since then, City Hall has found itself in a financial struggle, with top officials preparing to make wide cuts across various departments. The issue has risen to some lawmakers threatening to have Gov. Ron DeSantis remove commissioners from office if they don't take bold action.

Lewis Walton, GRU's chief business services officer, told county commissioners Tuesday that he believes the two sides have a "mutually beneficial agreement in place that preserves public safety."

If city commissioners don't approve the sale, Alachua County, as part of the motion on Tuesday, will cease all discussions and immediately begin the development and construction of its own radio system. The new system could pull in other agencies who use it for a cheaper price and, in essence, make Gainesville's radio obsolete.

During public comment, one resident expressed concern over the system's net book value, which as of Dec. 31, 2022, was $3.7 million.

Assistant County Manager Tommy Crosby, however, said that while the agreed-upon price is over net book value, it would cost the county more to recreate the same system or build a new one.

He also emphasized to commissioners that the county is not buying an outdated system, as the current contract requires Motorola to update it every two years as needed.

"We know that we're getting current technology," he said.

This article originally appeared on The Gainesville Sun: Alachua County to buy GRU's trunked radio system for $8 million