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Wednesday, November 22, 2017

Montana Highway Patrol helps county pay for unused, unwanted tower

By Daniel Nolker

Ranger-Review Staff Writer

Although they have not yet rid themselves of the communication tower near Fallon, Disaster and Emergency Services Coordinator Mary Jo Gehnert said Dawson County has found help paying the bills from Montana Highway Patrol. 

The tower  was erected in 2007 on Bureau of Land Management land with Homeland Security funds from the Interoperable Emergency Communications Grant Program.

However, by 2011 Interoperability Montana was running out of administrative and operations funding and on June 30, 2011 IM dissolved. When IM dissolved, approximately $10 million in grant awards, projects and contracts were abandoned.

“When the IM project went defunct, all of the expenses fell back on to Dawson County,” Gehnert said.

Although they have not been using the tower, the county has continued to pay for the tower’s electricity, maintenance and insurance.

Since the above ground height of the tower is 226 feet, Gehnert said it is high enough that it must be certified for airplanes with the Federal Aviation Administration. Therefore, the tower must be lit up according to regulations. 

However, the generator that supports the tower no longer works properly. Gehnert said she has to pay for a technician to go out and repair the generator and the county recently paid $500 in generator repairs. 

“Ideally, we would like to be released of the tower because of the liability and the cost since we’re not using it,” Gehnert said.

Although a meeting with state DES earlier this summer was intended to find an avenue to get rid of the tower, the county ran into some issues. 

According to Dawson County Deputy Attorney Brett Irigoin, if the tower was to  be sold, the county would have to pay back $80,000. Therefore, he said the best option might be for the county to transfer responsibility of the tower to a public safety partner.

The only entity currently using the tower is Montana Highway Patrol, and Irigoin said it was up to MHP whether or not they want to take on responsibility.

Since April, the county has paid the $204 a month electrical bill and been reimbursed by MHP. Dawson County accounts payable clerk Cheryl Shaffer said the county also sent MHP the bill for liability insurance. This year, the county paid $128 for liability insurance and $513 for property insurance. 

Irigoin said the Fallon tower dilemma will eventually come to an end. 

“It is my understanding that after July 16, 2018, the county will no longer have contractual responsibilities for maintenance of the tower. Until that point, it is up to MHP to determine what they will take on,” Irigoin said. 

Reach Daniel Nolker at news@rangerreview.com

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