By Kathi Bliss
In response to concerns that poor communication abilities inhibited firefighters’ ability to combat the massive Delhi fire earlier this month, the Caldwell County Commissioners Court voted on Monday to spend upwards of $66,000 to help bridge the communication gap.
During Monday morning’s marathon meeting, the Commissioners heard information from Emergency Management Coordinator Jim Parker regarding a quote for the purchase of 50 new 700/800 MHz radios, which will be distributed to the county’s 10 volunteer fire departments. The radios, which will work in concert with the county’s existing communication systems, will help the firefighters communicate while in remote areas of the county, such as Delhi.
Until now, the cost of the radios, estimated by Delhi VFD Chief Danney Rodgers to be as high as $2,500 per unit, has prevented the departments from purchasing or issuing the radios. As a result, Rodgers has often said, his firefighters, as well as those in the McMahan Volunteer Fire Department and other rural, remote departments, are forced to use cell phones to communicate with one another and with dispatch, in areas where their existing VHF radios don’t work.
It was the contribution of a handful of 700/800 MHz radios that “saved” the Delhi and McMahan VFDs on Labor Day Weekend when they struggled to fight the blaze that chewed through more than 6,500 acres in southeast Caldwell County.
Still, according to McMahan VFD Chief Chuck Cutshall, the radios are only one step in solving the communications problem in his area.
“The technology just isn’t there yet [for paging capabilities on the 700/800 MHz system],” Cutshall said. “We still receive pages on the VHF system, and we still need a repeater out there, so that we can get our pages and so we can use the “fire ops” channel.”
County Judge Tom Bonn agreed that the repeater would be a help, but cited concerns about the length of time it takes to license frequencies and set up a repeater. He said it was something that the Court would continue looking into, but that the new radios, at least, were an immediate stop-gap to help solve the problem.
The purchase will be funded by a newly-created “emergency disaster fund,” created by a declaration by the Court. The fund, a total of $150,000 set aside specifically for the purpose of disaster relief, was created Monday via budget transfers from other departments where funds remained unused as the current budget year draws to a close.
In a related item, Parker asked the Court to allocate funds to assist a family who lost their homes and their belongings to the fire in Delhi.
The family, a total of four households who held adjoining properties on Rifle Road, remained displaced at the beginning of this week, and was without the resources needed to secure new housing.
Parker told the Commissioners he had spoken to the management of Silent Valley Mobile Home Park, as well as representatives of the City of Lockhart, who were willing to help the family secure housing, but required a deposit and first month’s rent prior to their move-in. Because Caldwell County has not yet been approved for FEMA assistance, few options were available for their assistance, and Parker suggested the Commissioners find money in the budget to help them cover the initial cost, some $1,190.
Commissioners John Cyrier and Joe Roland bristled at the suggestion, as did some members of the gallery, who instead said that it should be a matter of community giving, rather than government assistance that helped the family. Both Cyrier and Roland said they would be willing to make a donation toward that purpose on Monday morning, but said they were uncomfortable allocating taxpayer funds and setting such a precedent for future actions.
County Auditor Larry Roberson said this sort of situation is often attended to by the Lockhart Ministerial Alliance, and suggested Parker contact that organization in an effort to help the family raise the funds to secure their housing.
In the end, Commissioner Neto Madrigal stood alone in support of a motion to make up the difference in expenses between what the family needs to move and the donations that could be secured by the community.
In other financial news, Bonn delivered a report from last week’s Elected Official Salary Grievance Committee meeting, which was held on Thursday evening.
The Committee, convened earlier this month after three of the county’s four Justices of the Peace filed official grievances asking for salary increases, met for just under an hour to determine whether the salaries of the three “grieving” justices should have their salaries increased to match the salary of Precinct One JP Matt Kiely.
Over the years, Judge Homer Horne (JP2) explained during the meeting, the Precinct One Justice had a higher-set salary because that justice traditionally assisted with magistration and truancy cases. However, Horne said, the remaining justices, including himself, have begun to engage in those activities, as well. It was Horne’s contention, along with other grieving justices Raymond D. Deleon and Alfonso Campos, that the salaries should be equalized, and that all four justices should be paid the same amount.
Under law, the unanimous vote from the grievance committee translate to a mandate for the Commissioners’ Court, and as such, the salaries for each of the three grieving parties must be raised in the coming budget year.
The raises will be as follows: $1,187 pay increase for Justice of the Peace Precinct Two (Horne); $1,899 per year pay increase for Justice of the Peace Precinct Three (Campos); and $3,265 per year pay increase for Justice of the Peace Precinct Four (Deleon).
In other business, for the first time since the early 1990s, Caldwell County will not have a seat at the table with the Clean Air Force of Central Texas.
After a presentation from CAFCT’s executive director, the Court split on a decision as to whether to pay the $2,250 in dues to the organization this year. The Clean Air Force is a non-profit, 501(c)3 organization intended to work with counties, businesses and municipalities to help maintain air standards that are in compliance with EPA standards.
Although there is a cost for membership in the organization, that cost is based upon population, and Caldwell County is said to have the lowest annual dues available. However, pressure has been growing from a contingent of county citizens regarding the Court’s participation in “non-governmental organizations” and “public-private partnerships” has some Commissioners taking a closer look at the memberships and questioning the reasons for continuing to participate.
After much discussion, some of it heated, the Court split on the vote, with Cyrier and Bonn voting to maintain membership in the organization, and Madrigal, Roland and Fred Buchholtz voting against paying the dues.
In brief news:
The Commissioners heard information from Caldwell County AgriLife Extension Agent Carissa Wilhelm regarding the 4-H program, and read a proclamation declaring the week of Oct. 2-8 as “National 4-H Week.”
They approved a contract with Time Warner Cable Business Class to provide telephone service to the County. The move, which should result in no change in phone numbers and a seamless transition from AT&T, is expected to save the county upwards of $2,500 per month in telephone service and long distance charges.
The Court received bids from a number of companies for flexible base, aggregate, asphalt materials, fuel, oil and lubricants for the coming budget year. The bids will be reviewed by the County Auditor and the Unit Road Administrator prior to the Court’s acceptance at a later date.
They heard reports from several county departments, providing a monthly update of those departments’ activities.
The Commissioners approved a decrease in juror pay for the coming year. The decrease, according to Roberson, is the result of a decrease in State-level contribution for juror reimbursement.
The County paid bills in the amount of $193,920.71.
The Caldwell County Commissioners’?Court meets on the second, third and fourth Monday of each month at 9 a.m. in the Conference Room at the L.W. Scott Annex, 1403 Blackjack St. in Lockhart.