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Shale money to buy pagers

| Saturday, Nov. 24, 2012, 12:02 a.m.

New paging equipment for the Westmoreland County emergency dispatch center will be the first purchase made with Marcellus shale impact fees.

County commissioners allocated more than $300,000 for new equipment to bring the county into compliance with a federal mandate to update the radio paging system.

Earlier this month, the county set aside $1.4 million from the gas drilling fees to be used for a variety of projects.

“It's something we need to do,” Commissioner Ted Kopas said.

The emergency dispatch upgrade is necessary to meet a Federal Communications Commission mandate to condense dispatching radio bands.

Public Safety Department spokesman Dan Stevens said the money will pay to update transmitters on each of the county's 10 dispatching towers.

New digital pagers will be purchased for each of the county's 116 fire departments.

“We're trying to get multiple units for every department,” Stevens said.

Each firefighter in every department eventually will need the new pagers, expected to cost about $350 per unit.

Stevens said fire departments will have until 2015 to completely outfit the county's 1,500 firefighters with the new units. That's when the old paging system will be taken off line.

The county expects to begin using the new radio bands by July.

Dispatches will be more readily available over digital scanners, Stevens said.

Throughout the summer, commissioners conducted a series of public hearings to solicit opinions about how the county should spend money generated by the new fee imposed on Marcellus shale gas wells.

Speakers proposed numerous potential uses such as environmental monitoring, public safety and general county operations.

Commissioner Charles Anderson said officials are examining other specific uses for the money.

“Obviously we need infrastructure, and there has been a discussion about using it for environmental programs,” Anderson said. “It will be used in little chunks, and some of it will be there to make up for a 10 percent cut in human service funding.”

Kopas suggested the money could be used to pay for capital projects, such as a proposal to build new district judges' offices in Scottdale and West Newton.

“I'd like to target the higher-priced items. We'll finalize this concurrently with the budget,” Kopas said.

Commissioners are finalizing a 2013 budget, which is slated for a vote on Dec. 20.

Westmoreland County received a total of about $2 million in impact fees. Under state law, more than $500,000 must be used to repair roads and bridges.

The rest must be spent on 13 categories that encompass most county functions. Commissioners last month allocated about $90,000 of the money to pay the salary of a human services director, a newly created position.

The radio paging system is permitted because it is a public safety project, Anderson said.

Rich Cholodofsky is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 724-830-6293 or rcholodofsky@tribweb.com.

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