State seeks financing for police radios

Missouri is seeking to borrow money to finish work on a long-awaited upgrade to the state’s emergency responder radio system that was supposed was to be paid for with an influx federal stimulus funds.

Gov. Jay Nixon’s administration said Tuesday that the project is progressing too slowly to make use of the stimulus money before a federal deadline later this year. But some lawmakers responsible for crafting the state budget are reluctant to increase the state’s debt. The difference of opinion is raising questions about how — or whether — the state can afford to complete the project.

The Missouri Highway Patrol currently uses a radio system that is about 50 years old and still relies on vacuum tubes in its transmitters. There is consensus among patrol officers and public officials that the radio system is long overdue for replacement.

The new patrol radios are intended to be compatible with local communications systems used by police, firefighters, ambulance services and other emergency responders. The goal is to eliminate instances in which public safety personnel from one jurisdiction have difficulty directly communicating with those from other regions when responding to emergencies.

State lawmakers included some initial money for a new radio system in the 2009 budget. But the project was temporarily delayed as Democrat Jay Nixon took over from Republican Gov. Matt Blunt and revisited the contract with Motorola Inc. because of the state’s worsening financial condition.

Lawmakers then included $112 million of federal stimulus money for the new radio system in the 2010 budget. But much of that was vetoed or withheld by Nixon because of reduced project costs and financial strains on other parts of Missouri’s budget. Since then, the state also has allotted highway funds and a specially earmarked federal grant for the project.

So far, Missouri has received invoices for just $12 million of what now is expected to be an $82 million project, said Andrea Spillars, deputy director of the Department of Public Safety.

The federal government requires the stimulus money to be spent by Sept. 30, which is sooner than the radio system improvements are expected to be completed, said Linda Luebbering, Nixon’s budget director.

Consequently, Nixon’s administration is proposing to use $35 million of credit from a Jefferson City bank to finish financing the project. That’s raising concerns among some members of the Senate Appropriations Committee, who said Tuesday that they would prefer that Nixon’s administration find a way to pay for the radio project with the federal stimulus dollars.

“The idea of going to the bank and putting this on a credit card is very troubling,” said Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Kurt Schaefer, R-Columbia.

Under the latest plan, Missouri would tap an existing lease agreement with Central Bank for the $35 million, which would accrue nearly $6 million of interest over seven years, Luebbering said. She said the arrangement was more comparable to the terms of a home loan than a credit card.

But members of the Senate Appropriations Committee have been casting additional scrutiny on the state’s debt, especially when the financing is initiated by the administration instead of through voter-approved bonds.

Spillars, the public safety administrator, said that if the state is unable to secure additional financing for the radio project, it might have to be put on hold before it’s completed.

“Being able to build the system is very important,” she said. “With leasing, we would have an ongoing ability to pay for the project.”

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