By Tim Cox
MONTEZUMA -- There is bitterness between members of the Mercer County Firefighters Association and Mercer County Commissioners over a proposed communications tower project that recently fell through.
The group of about 50 firefighters discussed the tower issue for more than an hour Thursday evening, expressing concern about how federal grant money was divided after the original tower project fell flat. However, the group decided to mount a last-ditch effort to get the tower approved, if enough grant money remains available.
County officials' plan to spend $86,000 in federal grant money on the tower collapsed among legal concerns and time constraints earlier this month. The nearly 200-foot tower was to be built in St. Henry to clear up radio "dead spots" in the southern part of the county.
County commissioners, who ultimately are responsible for awarding the contracts for the grant program, scuttled the tower plans because of legal worries about the bid process. The two bids received exceeded construction estimates by more than 10 percent and Ohio law forbids awarding contracts that exceed estimates by that much. County officials also did not include prevailing wage paperwork with the bid documents because they didn't think the price would reach the level to trigger the federal prevailing wage requirements.
After scrapping the tower project, commissioners agreed to a backup plan to buy backup generators for fire departments in Celina, Coldwater and Rockford, some radio equipment to help problems in the northern part of the county and pagers for emergency responders. Some members of the firefighters association questioned the decision on the backup plan and accused Rockford Fire Chief Ralph Rhoades of taking care of his own problems at the expense of the whole county. Rhoades was on the committee that recommended to commissioners how the money would be spent.
"If we're an association, we need to stick together as an association," Chickasaw Fire Chief Mark Seitz said. "We need to get rid of that north-south line."
Rhoades said he was simply trying to address a different communications problem after the tower project fell by the wayside.
Seitz said he believes the tower can still be built if plans for $44,000 of the grant money from fiscal year 2006 can be redirected from the purchases already approved. The original tower bids of $72,000 and $94,000 were over-inflated due to excessively restrictive bid specifications, he said.
Contractors were worried about the tight timeline laid out in the bid specifications and about the lack of soil samples in the bid documents. The soil samples would dictate how the foundation of a tower would need to be constructed.
Contractors "padded" their bids to account for the unknown factors, Seitz said.
The firefighters association agreed to spend $1,800 to have the soil testing done. Seitz said he believes the tower can be built for the $44,000 with the restrictions loosened.
The soil sample will allow contractors to provide a "quality" bid, he said.
County Department of Homeland Security and Emergency Management officials will find out how much grant money could still be available in the next day or two, said Mike Robbins, who works in that office.
This might be the last opportunity to get the tower built with federal terrorism grant money, officials said. The available grant money has been dwindling in recent years and there is no certainty the program will be funded for 2007, they said.
Robbins said the 2006 grant money was less than half of what was awarded the year before.