ELKHORN — For Walworth County government officials who are celebrating that county government no longer has any debt, the party could be over soon.
Faced with an aging 9-1-1 emergency communication system, county officials are moving toward the significant and expensive task of replacing the entire system.
With a price tag possibly exceeding $25 million, it could become the county government’s largest capital expenditure in decades. And it could require the county to borrow money.
“If we have to borrow some money,” County Supervisor Jerry Grant said, “I guess that’s the way it goes.”
Walworth County last year officially declared itself debt-free, becoming perhaps Wisconsin’s only county to carry no debt on its books. After completing the last remaining payment on past road repairs and building projects, the county last summer celebrated with a mock mortgage-burning party.
Officials, however, never promised that the county would remain debt-free indefinitely.
County Administrator David Bretl said the need for a reliable emergency communication system is too great not to borrow money, if necessary. Bretl has recommended that county supervisors consider options for funding the project, and that they plan to start in 2020 with the first outlay of $2.5 million.
Bretl’s proposal calls for another $9 million in 2021, followed by $9 million more in 2022 and $4.7 million the following year.
It would be disappointing to take on new debt, Bretl said, but the county’s current emergency communication system is nearing the end of its life cycle, and replacement parts are no longer available.
“It’s a significant public safety issue,” he said, “and a very expensive price tag.”
The system, which includes towers, radios and other hardware, provides for high-tech communication with 9-1-1 emergency dispatchers, as well as police officers and other county employees.
A consultant has examined the county’s current radio system and recommended replacing it at a cost of $25.4 million.
At that price, it would exceed the cost of the county’s new Health and Human Services headquarters, which is currently under construction with a budget of $24 million.
Bretl said the new communication network would represent the largest capital project since he joined the county 19 years ago, and perhaps for several decades before that.
Members of the county board executive committee discussed the project Feb. 18 and sent the matter back to county staff for more information.
Supervisor David Weber, chairman of the executive committee, said he wants to re-examine the consultant’s recommendation and also consider whether there are other options for a new communications system.
Weber said he, too, would be willing to borrow money for the project, if necessary.
“We aren’t so naive to think that we’re going to go on forever debt-free,” he said.
As recently as a few years ago, the county was paying about $3 million a year in debt payments, out of a total annual budget that now stands at $156 million.
If the county goes back to the municipal bond market to borrow for a new communications network, the county will enjoy the benefit of having a top AAA bond rating, which could ensure a low interest rate.
“That’s a plus,” Bretl said.
In addition to the funding questions, county officials are facing the related issues of a task force recommendation to create a new countywide 9-1-1 dispatch system, as well as the possibility that state officials are mulling options for their own communications infrastructure improvements.
In Walworth County, the main emergency communications center is operated by the county sheriff’s department in Elkhorn. But some local police departments, including Lake Geneva’s, handle their own dispatching.
County Supervisor Charlene Staples said there are many questions that must be answered before the county decides on a new emergency radio system.
Staples said officials recognize that the current system is aged and in need of replacement soon.
Whether the project will require the county to borrow money, Staples said, is “an awfully big question.” She added: “We certainly wouldn’t like to. But the safety of our residents is first in my mind.”