At long last, the city of North Branch can let out a huge sigh of relief as the dispute between the city and Chisago County over the use of the county’s ARMER system can be put to rest. 

During the final council meeting of 2019, the council approved a pair of agreements between the two governments that will keep both the fire and police departments’ radios working uninterrupted for the foreseeable future.

“After many, many months, meetings and conversations, before you this evening are two agreements,” said City Administrator Renae Fry. “We request action to approve two versions of an agreement that are very similar, but serve two different purposes.”

Fry explained that the two agreements were necessary because previously, when the city was presented the option of acquiring new radios from the county to replace ones whose service warranties were expiring, the fire department chose to keep using the old radios, while the police department opted to get new radios.

“The first agreement is what is referred to as a user agreement,” she said. “This is the agreement that outlines the rights and privileges of the fire department and police department to utilize their existing Motorola radios on the 800 megahertz ARMER radio system.”

It was in part that decision to use the older radios that kick-started a disagreement between the county and city over allowing the city to still be part of the county’s ARMER (Allied Radio Matrix for Emergency Response) system, which allows for different divisions of emergency personnel to directly communicate with each other. 

Going to radio silence

At the peak of the disagreement, the county was threatening to decertify North Branch’s radios unless the city signed a new agreement with the county. However, the city deemed that new agreement unacceptable and responded to the county’s threats with threats of getting an injunction against the county.

“Key to this agreement is a provision that does not allow the county to unilaterally decertify radios,” Fry said. 

The other major part of the agreement is how much the county would charge the city for being on the system. Fry said for 2020, the city will pay a flat $575 per radio. Starting in 2021, that number will be based on how much the Metropolitan Emergency Services Board (MESB) charges the county, plus $30.

“This is a number that can be verified and documented,” Fry said. “It’s not just some arbitrary number that can be pulled out of the air.”

Fry said that based on current MESB charges, the amount the city pays the county will drop to $251 per radio. She also noted that this agreement will automatically renew each year, and if either party decides to opt out, they must give three-years advanced notice.

The second agreement is for the 25 new radios the city is essentially renting from the county for the police department. This agreement not only covers the same thing as the first agreement, but also includes a certain amount of the “rent” the city is paying be put into a fund that can be used for future replacement radios. Fry said the city will be paying the county $315 per radio in addition to the user fees in the first agreement.

During discussion, the council voiced its relief that this battle with the county is finally over.

“I think the process made us all stronger,” said Mayor Jim Swenson. “The county commissioners now know that we have mayors, townships, fire departments and police departments all united. I’m hoping that never in our lifetimes are we going to have to go through what we’ve gone through.”

“This has been a rather trying, complex, often-times contentious issue,” added council member Brian Voss. “It really started looking like it was going to be a dismal, knock-down, drag-out event for a long term. I’m glad that reason and goodwill have come and taken the day.”

“Let’s put this to bed,” concluded council member Joel McPherson right before the council unanimously voted to approve both agreements. 

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