GOLD BEACH The new phone system for Curry Countys government offices came closer to reality Wednesday when the county commissioners met with Verizon sales, lease and technical personnel.

Commissioner Lucie La Bont questioned whether the county was ready to start negotiating a lease, given the possible budget shortfall that may result from union negotiations.

Commissioner Marlyn Schafer said, We will start the procedure today. Weve budgeted for it. Now is the time to get it started.

La Bont said, Youre not in favor of cutting it even if we have to cut the budget somewhere else?

Thats correct, said Schafer. Weve made a commitment to upgrade the system because of efficiency. Were committed to not changing that part of the budget.

Schafer said department heads listed the countys antiquated phone system as one of their top concerns. None of the department heads attending the workshop argued with that.

Max Ramsey, account manager for enterprise sales with Verizon, reminded the commissioners and department heads that the county does not have to deploy the entire new system at once.

If deployment has to be strung out because of budget cuts, he said, it wont affect the other pieces in the system.

Even if the commissioners bought the entire package, said Ramsey, hed recommend the system be installed and lit up in phases to make sure each piece works correctly.

Craig Johnson from Verizon Credit said the municipal lease being offered does not obligate the county to long-term debt. The county can pull out if funds run low.

With a 60-month lease, the new system would cost the county $26,471 a year more than it is currently paying in long-distance charges. After five years, the county would own the system free and clear, he said.

Schafer said the commissioners included $30,000 in the fiscal year 2001-02 budget to pay for the new system.

Johnson said Verizons municipal lease differs from traditional commercial leases in several ways.

He said it is actually a purchase contract. The county will own the equipment at the end of the lease. There will be no balloon payment.

Payments will go toward the principal, so the county will acquire equity in the system. The county could also buy out the lease early, with no penalty.

Johnson said a municipal lease is like a loan, where a commercial lease is like paying rent.

He quoted the commissioners a 5.5 percent interest rate, but advised them to not sign up until later in June, when he expects the rates to go down. He said the rate is down 2.5 percent since last year, and is at the lowest level hes ever seen.

Johnson said the county will owe no money until 30 days after the installation is complete. There is no money down and no deposit.

Ramsey said 55-60 percent of Verizons municipal customers use the municipal lease program. Johnson said he works with cities and counties throughout the Northwest.

He said the county will also be able to add equipment or change the system. It will all be put into the original lease and will be paid off at the same time.

Most of the equipment will go into the Gold Beach hub complex, including the courthouse, sheriffs office, jail, annex and adult corrections building.

The system will also cover the human services, public health and home health/hospice departments in Gold Beach, Port Orford and Brookings.

The commissioners wondered, however, whether it would be less expensive to include the road department or home health/hospice now, and hook the others up later.

Schafer said home health/ hospice already has its own phone hub and has just signed another lease. She said if that department moves, its hub could be used to connect the road department to the new system.

Public Health Director Barbara Floyd reminded the commissioners that the Curry County Commission on Children and Families is now in the South Coast Educational Service District building.

Ramsey explained in an earlier meeting that the new system will transmit voices as digital data directly between connected offices, replacing traditional long-distance charges.

Which would cost more? asked La Bont. Which is the more practical way to go? Were still up in the air.

Ramsey said that 99 percent of the $30,000 a year the county now pays in long-distance charges will be absorbed in the new private network system. He said Verizon would also help the county reduce its traditional long-distance rates by 15 percent.

He recommended hooking up everything in the countys Gold Beach and Port Orford offices first before moving on to Brookings.

That will keep our technicians in the same place at the same time, said Ramsey. Its more efficient.

Schafer said the road department is in good shape internally now with its new system, and it can be called from Gold Beach offices without long-distance charges.

We are happy internally, said Roadmaster Dan Crumley, but would like to be part of the system someday. We do want direct inward dialing. It would save on reception time.

With that feature, explained Ramsey, the public could call individuals in departments directly, instead of going through receptionists. He said it would cost an additional $15 a month per 100 phone numbers.

He said calls could also be forwarded to other phones in the system. Senior Sales Engineer Rick Branum said the systems in each office would have their own voice mail capabilities.

Capt. Mark Metcalf said Sheriff Kent Owens wanted to alleviate the need for one of his dispatchers to answer the countys calls when the county switchboard is closed.

Branum said if a console goes down it would switch to voice mail. Schafer did not want a system where citizens cannot reach a live person easily.

Ramsey said the new system will be flexible enough to cover any county policy. The 911 dispatchers could be taken out of the loop during lunch and other times while county lines are answered by receptionists in other departments.

Schafer said the commissioners would meet with department heads and work that out.

For individual extension phone numbers, Branum suggested using four digits, which would give 10,000 possible numbers.

Ramsey said if the county signs with Verizon on July 2, the entire system could be up and running by the end of August. At most, he said, it would take 90 days to go from signing to light switch.