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Work continues to find solution for 911 courthouse tower

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

The fate of a 911 radio communications tower on top of the Plymouth County Courthouse remains undecided.

The Plymouth County E911 Board is studying several options for the aging tower, which has loose wires and rusted bolts on it.

The tower backs up communication systems for fire services, Emergency Medical Services (EMS) and is a radio repeater site for the Le Mars Police Department.

The courthouse communications tower is also the data link between the courthouse and the county engineer's office, off Highway 75, north of Le Mars.

Services needed to run the engineer's office computers are provided via this link from the courthouse.

Shawn Olson, county 911 coordinator, said five options for the tower have been identified by the E911 board.

Those options include:

1. Replacing the current tower on top of the building

2. Repair the tower, leave it where it is

3. Remove the tower and build a new one on the courthouse grounds

4. Remove the tower and build a new tower in a new location

5. Remove the tower and lease space on other suitable towers

Olson said the first option has been totally eliminated after talking with area tower manufacturers.

Those companies don't want to construct a tower on the courthouse without knowing the building's architectural specifications, he said.

Because of the age of the building, that information is not known, Olson explained.

The second option, repairing the tower and leaving it on the courthouse, is also a questionable possibility, he said.

That's because it is unknown as to how the tower is anchored to the building's structure, Olson explained.

Leaving the tower in its current location, is not a favored option among members of the Plymouth County Board of Supervisors.

The supervisors discussed the communications tower at their meeting Tuesday.

"It's a lightning hazard," Supervisor Don Kass said. "It's unsightly. I've been up there and that thing has to come down."

The courthouse tower has been struck by lightning several times in the last 20-30 years, Olson said.

"I know of at least five or six strikes, but we've only had damage to items in the building twice," he said.

Olson said the E911 board is currently looking into options 3, 4 and 5.

All three of those possibilities include finding a suitable location for the new tower, which would need to be about 140 feet tall, Olson said.

Factoring in the height of the courthouse building, the existing communications tower is 120 feet tall, he said.

"We are looking for suitable grounds that will give adequate coverage for the services that are up there (on the tower)," Olson said.

The height of the tower is necessary to serve the Le Mars Police Department and the fire and ambulance departments, he said.

It is not needed for the data link between the county engineer's office and the courthouse, said Olson, who is also the county's information technology director.

"We could actually take a portion of the (existing) tower down at that point, and just leave a stick up for the wireless data link to the engineer's office," he said.

E911 board members are having informal discussions with city of Le Mars officials about the possibility of building a tower on city-owned land, Olson said.

He explained that the county doesn't own very much property throughout Le Mars that is the right elevation.

"Location is going to be the key to this," Olson said.

He and the county supervisors also discussed pros and cons of building a new tower on the courthouse property.

Supervisor Craig Anderson, a member of the E911 board, said there probably wouldn't be enough room for a new tower there.

Based on the 140-foot-height of the tower, the county zoning board would require at least that much of a fall zone area, he said.

"It should go somewhere else, wherever we can find a spot," said Supervisor's Chairman Jim Henrich.

Kass suggested using the city water tower as a communications hub for the Le Mars Police Department and backup system for the fire and ambulance departments.

"The current city water tower has way too many entities on top of it to have county services off of it," Olson said.

Kass said it should be investigated as to whether using the city's water tower would be viable, if some of the entities were removed.

"It may be a simple solution that the city receives less rent, but they don't have to build a gigantic tower just for the two services we're talking about," he said.

Olson estimated the overall cost of the project at about $100,000.

"The portion for the tower itself, fire, EMS and law enforcement would be funded through E911 dollars," he said. "The county's data link would be under the county taxpayer budget."

No decisions were made on the communications tower.

The E911 board will continue studying the options before making a recommendation to the board of supervisors.

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