The Chisago County commissioners drew a line in the sand in their ongoing dispute with the city of North Branch regarding the use of ARMER radios.
At its July 3 meeting, the county passed a resolution terminating their 2012 subscriber agreement with the city. That termination means North Branch must reach a new agreement with the county on the radios within the 180-day notice period required by the contract or cease using the system.
If there is no agreement, the city also must return any county-owned equipment by that 180-day deadline, which the commissioners’ resolution established as Dec. 31.
The commissioners met in closed session for roughly 40 minutes before the July 3 meeting began to discuss the ARMER agreement with North Branch and other pending litigation. Once the session was reopened, the commissioners voted 4-1 to proceed as directed by counsel, with Commissioner Mike Robinson opposed.
Soon after the meeting began, the commissioners unanimously voted to terminate the subscriber agreement with North Branch. North Branch Mayor Jim Swenson was in the audience, as was Wyoming Mayor Lisa Iverson.
The ARMER system is an 800 MHz trunked public safety radio system required by both the state and federal governments. The county pays the costs for the towers needed to run the system and offers radios that cities and townships can buy for use by local police and fire departments.
The county first signed agreements to use the system in 2012-13, and in January 2018 the commissioners took steps to address problems funding operations and capital replacement. That resulted in more than a year’s worth of discussions, some contentious, over how costs would be shared.
County Administrator Bruce Messelt said every other county entity has approved an interim ARMER agreement. He also noted the county has received comments on a draft for a permanent agreement, which would be in effect from 2020-2023.
Messelt said County Attorney Janet Reiter is reviewing those comments, and a meeting between the county and the participants to move forward on that agreement is scheduled for Wednesday, July 24.
Once the motion was made to terminate the agreement with North Branch, the commissioners expressed interest in finding common ground with the city.
“I think it’s important to say that, as a county commissioner, I would like to see North Branch stay on ARMER,” Commissioner Ben Montzka said. “But it is a choice that takes two sides to be involved. I think we should work together to have the best operating system possible for the entire county.”
Commissioner George McMahon echoed that sentiment.
“I think Commissioner Montzka makes a good point: North Branch doesn’t have to be a part of the system if it doesn’t want to,” McMahon said. “City governors will have to explain to their citizens why they don’t agree to be part of the system that has been in place for the last five years.”
Robinson indicated that, during a work session with North Branch that included fellow commissioner Chris DuBose, that particular point was made clear to the city.
“We’re continuing to work with the city, but this resolution spells out that it’s over by the end of the year if we don’t come to an agreement,” DuBose said. “But I hope we have an agreement.”
Messelt said the county may be best served by explaining to end users why it has particular fees and safeguards in place.
“We might have to do some education as to why we are where we are,” he said. “A lot of decisions made 10 years ago are expensive decisions we have to live with. The key for any city or safety department that uses its own radios, their fees went down from $605 to $575. This isn’t an unbudgeted expense, but I know an unbudgeted expense will come in buying new radios. I think we should search for state and federal funds to pay for that.”