Sheriff wants El Paso County upgrades

Call for new system grows louder

Matthew Smith, Good Morning El Paso Weekend Anchor / Reporter
POSTED: 08:46 PM MDT Jul 18, 2013    UPDATED: 09:30 PM MST Jan 15, 2014 
EL PASO, Texas -

The questions continue to swirl around a $10.3 million dollar radio system the El Paso County sheriff wants installed.

The radios used now by deputies in the county match federal mandates, however, they’re less reliable than analog radios used just two years ago. Most agencies throughout Texas already use what is referred to as a P25 radio system. Others that are not, like the city of El Paso, are working to overhaul their system.

A digital switch was forced because of federal requirements that kicked in on Jan. 1. Sheriff Richard Wiles predicts the P25 system will be a future mandate, right now it’s only “recommended.”

As it stands now, county law enforcement officials say portable radios work at full capacity in 26 percent of the county. In some instances, they say they’ve been known to not work at all. Deputies say in severe circumstances they’ve been forced to use cellphones.

“All I got from dispatch was 10-9 which means ‘repeat traffic’ because they couldn’t copy my radio,” said Deputy Ricardo Perales.

Perales explained that he had been engaged in a fight with two people. In order to call for backup he had to pull out his cellphone and hold it at eye level with a weapon drawn. He walked away from the instance unscathed. The sheriff is worried all of his deputies won’t be so lucky.

“If it fails and we’re left with the same communication system this will cost the taxpayers more in the future, and potentially cause someone injury or death,” said Wiles. “I would not want to be the one that has to live with that.”

Words like those have created a tension between Wiles and the people slated to vote on the project Monday. Last week, El Paso County Commissioners decided to postpone a decision. They asked Commissioner Carlos Leon to hold meetings with the sheriff to help weigh the need of the situation.

Commissioners Sergio Lewis and Vince Perez have also requested to hold a meeting with the sheriff. They cannot attend the same meetings at the same time because of open meeting act requirements. If the three commissioners met with the sheriff simultaneously it would be illegal; as a result there is no clear indication which way they may vote on Monday.

Commissioners have never questioned the project, but they have questioned the timing and amount. The Sheriff’s Office accounts for more than $98 million of the county’s annual budget. That’s a figure that represents 42.7 percent.

A new radio system was always planned, but the county budget called for it to come in at a cost of $4.5 million. Wiles told ABC-7 that the initial budget request was for much more money, however, they were denied the funding he sought.

Commissioner Vince Perez wasn’t a county leader when the money was planned. In 2012, $110 million in certificates of obligation were issued, but Perez has questions about how he can approve any project that comes in for more than double the original slotted amount. As it stands now, the project would cost $5.8 million more than the amount allotted for it.

Perez’s main issue: There have been no alternative funding methods offered.

“That’s where I have a problem, I’ll hear the sheriff on Monday but I have serious concerns on where it stands now,” said Perez.

Wiles has not shown any willingness to present a plan that would implement the P25 radio system over multiple years. He told ABC-7 that it would amount to buying equipment and mothballing it as the system wouldn’t work until all the components are bought. He has also said that a deal with Motorola to do the entire system at once would allow the county to net a $2.5 million savings.

For more on this story as it continues to develop follow ABC-7 reporter Matthew Smith on Twitter at @MattSmithABC7.