Commissioners approve project to improve local radio coverage

Editor: Shannon Cottongame

February 1, 2023

Hill County commissioners approved a proposal to improve public safety communications in the northwestern portion of the county during a meeting held Tuesday, January 24.

Radio Administrator Chris Jackson told the court that there is still a problem with radio coverage in the Blum area with the county’s new 800 MHz radio system. Jackson said that the deficiency greatly impacts portable radio coverage and moderately impacts mobile, in-car coverage.

Jackson said that all efforts to fix the issue without additional expense have been exhausted, and he presented two options to the court. The first and preferred method would involve adding a third tower site that would increase coverage for the northern and northwestern portion of the county. The second method would involve replacing the handheld radios used by the sheriff’s office with new radios with added WiFi and LTE coverage.

Jackson said that the tower proposal is a permanent fix for the future, while the alternate radios would likely be a shorter term solution. County Judge Justin Lewis also pointed out that there is no single cell phone carrier that works throughout the county, and that solution would put the county at the carrier’s mercy.

The tower proposal would drastically reduce sporadic radio dead zones for over 600 square miles, according to Jackson’s information.

He reported that Emergency Management has been researching towers in the area and located an Oncor tower that would provide the coverage necessary. Oncor has provided verbal permission for the county to place its equipment on the tower.

The expected cost of placing L3 Harris radio infrastructure on the Oncor tower is around $240,000. The new radio option would be about $123,000, with additional costs expected in the future.

Lewis said that he would not have been able to recommend action if a funding option was not available, but the county will be receiving an additional $250,000 grant under the American Rescue Plan, with half to be received this year and half next year. “As a matter of public safety, I would like to see you guys address this,” he said.

Precinct 3 Commissioner Scotty Hawkins said that radio coverage in that part of the county has been an issue since he began serving as a commissioner, and he is tired of putting money towards it. “I’m ready for something to work,” he said.

The court unanimously approved the tower option and will pay for half of the project out of the county’s reserves, placing the money back in that fund when the second half of the federal grant is received.

Two medical service providers and one pharmacy provider made presentations to the court after the county solicited bids for inmate medical services.

Representatives of Southern Health Partners, which has been the county’s provider for the past 13 years, encouraged the county to allow them to continue working in the jail. Their proposal includes a nurse on site seven days a week, a medical team administrator on site eight hours a week and additional assistance from a medical director and psychiatric nurse practitioner and telepsychiatry options.

Advanced Correctional Healthcare also made a presentation, saying that they provide healthcare in jails and juvenile facilities at 350 sites in 51 states. The company’s services would include an onsite nurse, site manager and practitioner hours, along with mental health professionals on site 10 hours a week and telemedicine capabilities. The company also offers education for any employees that come into contact with inmates.

While the Southern Health Partners proposal includes pharmacy services, the Advanced Correctional Healthcare option would require the county to contract with a pharmacy provider.

Diamond Pharmacy Services also provided a presentation and estimated that the county could save about 17% on its inmate medication costs based on receipts from the last quarter of 2022.

Lewis said that one of the reasons the county sought bids was to see if savings were available as the costs of inmate medical care and prescriptions continue to rise. The current plan through Southern Health Partners includes a $25,000 medication cap, after which the county must pay for prescriptions. Last year, that cap was reached by June, and the county paid an additional $38,000 after that point.

After receiving feedback from the sheriff’s office, the court is expected to take action on the proposals at its next meeting.

Precinct 1 Justice of the Peace Trey Jetton presented a request to the court for a full-time court clerk position to serve in precincts 1 and 2. Jetton said that the courts handled a combined total of close to 2,000 cases last year and caseloads continue to increase as the population increases.

The judge said that his court saw a 43% increase in 2022 compared to the previous year, and Precinct 2 had an eight-percent increase. He said that those numbers don’t represent the work done for death inquests and magistration.

Judge Lewis said that while he appreciates the work the offices do, he believes the issue should be revisited at budget time, saying that other offices are in the same situation and money for the new employee is not in the budget.

The court also discussed the need to fill a position in Jetton’s office temporarily due to an employee’s expected maternity leave and the logistics of training an employee to take on the temporary position. After discussion, commissioners voted to authorize the county judge and auditor to work with the four justices of the peace to ascertain the need and develop a plan for hiring an additional employee to assist the offices, especially Jetton’s while his employee is on leave.

Commissioners had a burn ban on the agenda for consideration due to the increasing numbers of fires, but they decided against it with the wet weather moving in last week.

Lewis encouraged the public to exercise caution, noting that weather conditions have made burning hazardous.

Multiple fires the previous week started as controlled burns and got out of control. He also encouraged those planning burns to call the non-emergency number at the sheriff’s office as a courtesy before starting a controlled burn.

The court appointed members to the Emergency Services District 1 and 2 boards of commissioners. Ken Goins was reappointed and David Hesselbrock was appointed to the ESD 1 board, and Tad Duncan and Bob Stahl were reappointed to the ESD 2 board.

Commissioners also approved the appointment of 66 individuals to the Hill County Historical Commission.

The court voted to support a grant application from the Post Oak Water Supply that could fund two projects in Hill County. One would install an eight-inch main from Hubbard west along State Highway 31 approximately two miles to Farm Road 936. That would replace a six-inch line that is not adequate for growth. Another project would replace various small water lines to reduce water loss.

Plats were approved by the court, including a preliminary plat for Riley Estates in the Whitney area, a minor plat for a landowner at Farm Road 2114 and HCR 2226 and preliminary and final plats for another landowner looking to divide his property for a family farm.

In other action, the court declared miscellaneous information technology equipment and an envelope folding machine as surplus property to sell, approved an engagement letter with Pattillo, Brown & Hill for auditing services, voted to seek grant funds from the governor’s office for public safety radios and observed a certificate of completion showing that Treasurer Rachel Parker completed a course on the Public Information Act.

The court convened in closed session to discuss economic development negotiations, and no action was taken when open session resumed.

The next meeting of the Hill County Commissioners Court will be Tuesday, February 14.

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