BRATTLEBORO -- The company that owns a crucial radio tower the town uses on top of Mt. Wantastiquet is raising the annual rent from $10 to $12,000 and now the town is trying to figure out what to do next.
For years Brattleboro had a deal with Comcast that allowed the town to put its radio equipment on the tower for $10.
The town has radio equipment for the police and fire departments on the tower.
As Comcast moved away from using its towers to receive and broadcast television signals it has become unnecessary for the company to maintain its towers for its own use.
The town learned recently that CTI Towers Inc, a subsidiary of Comcast that was formed in 2011 to manage the company's 800 towers in 39 states, was raising the rent.
Now Brattleboro is trying to figure out if it wants to enter into a long term deal with CTI, or explore other possible locations for the emergency response equipment.
CTI wants the town to sign a five-year contract and town officials have agreed to negotiate with CTI, though before the deal is signed it will be brought to the Selectboard for approval.
Joe Newton, the Fire Alarm Superintendent with the Brattleboro Fire Department who manages most of the radio communication for the town said $1,000 a month is in line with what other tower operators charge.
But he said the steep increase in rent is causing the town to look at its needs and see if there are better locations.
"One thousand dollars is not an outrageous amount; it is fair," Newton said.
At the last Selectboard meeting, board member John Allen said he was not comfortable with CTI "holding the town hostage" with the rental increase.
Newton said the Mt. Wantastiquet tower is absolutely crucial for the town's radio system and the town could not go without the mountain tower.
Prior to 2006 the town had an antenna on the fire station and on one on Pleasant Valley Road until the town received a $730,000 FEMA grant to help rebuild the radio system.
Radio communication was spotty back then, Newton said, and it was often hard, or impossible to communicate from within a building.
When the town got the grant it did an entire radio study to find the best location for a tower.
"We noticed the benefits of it right away," Newton said. "Right now there isn't a spot in Brattleboro where we have a coverage issue with this radio system."
The fire department has three antenna sites in town; the Mt. Wantastiquet site, one on Ames Hill near the Marlboro and a third on Pleasant Valley Road.
The town owns the land and equipment on Pleasant Valley Road and rents space on the Ames Hill tower for $1,000 a year.
The police department maintains one other site on land owned by the School for International Learning along with the Mt. Wantastiquet tower.
Fire Chief Mike Bucossi said the Mt. Wantastiquet site is an important piece of the whole system.
"The mountain site talks to the other sites," Bucossi said. "Without that site we would lose a lot of coverage in town and have a lot of weak pockets and in some areas of town we would have no coverage at all. It would be a huge safety issue if we lose that site."
At the Selectboard meeting board member David Schoales asked if the department would be moving away from radio systems in the future and toward a digital system.
Bucossi said large cities with their own departments can go digital to communicate within their own system.
But smaller, rural departments, like Brattleboro, he said, that rely on mutual aid with other departments, have to be able to communicate.
Over the past few years the federal government has given out millions of dollars to allow agencies to communicate with each other and Bucossi said if Brattleboro changed to digital it would make it impossible to talk with nearby departments.
"The big thing that came out of 9/11 was inter-operability and everyone being able to talk to each other," Bucossi said. "If Brattleboro Fire Department were to go digital, we wouldn't be able to communicate with anybody in our mutual aid system. "
And for now, Bucossi said, the town has a system that meets all of its needs.
"I don't think it's a stretch to say ‘We have better things to spend our money on right now," Bucossi said. "We do have a very sophisticated radio system and it serves us well. We've just run into this glitch with the tower."
Newton said it was impossible to look 10 or 20 years into the future and try to guess how radio communication might change.
But he said with the equipment the town had, and no mandated changes on the horizon, it made sense to support the system the town was using.
Still, Newton was not sure the Mt. Wantastiquet tower offered the best long term solution.
If the town was going to $12,000 a year to rent space it might make more sense to develop its own tower.
The town can not go without emergency radio service for any amount of time, so it might be necessary to keep the Mt. Wantastiquet for a few years while at the same time exploring longer range options.
"This is a huge increase for us and while this is a very critical piece of infrastructure for the town emergency services it's a huge whack to the town budget," Bucossi said. "So we're looking at different options to see if there are better cost benefit steps we can take that would benefit the town. There may be some initial investments to make, but in the long run if we are paying $12,000 to CTI why wouldn't we look at a chance to develop a site and possibly have revenue coming into the town by renting space on our tower."
Howard Weiss-Tisman can be reached at hwtisman@reformer .com or 802-254-2311, ext. 279. Follow Howard on Twitter .