Attorneys for the Mobile County Commission and the Mobile County Communications District (911 board) are trying to salvage a $770,000 refund that’s been sitting in the bank for more than year  — money returned from a $3.2 million project awarded to Harris Corporation in 2012.

The refund was discussed at length during a meeting Dec. 10, which ultimately led to 911 board member Trey Oliver abruptly walking out.

The issue is rooted in a lack of communication between the county and the 911 board that appears to have led to “a number” of duplicate equipment purchases in the board’s 2013 contract with Harris. Some of the equipment had been funded by grants in a previous deal with the company.

According to board attorney Jeff Hartley, a contract in 2012 was the result of a $7 million homeland security grant split between Mobile and Baldwin counties. Its aim was to create a radio system to allow first responders in both counties to communicate with one another in real time.

As a result, Baldwin County installed a server to maintain its P-25 Phase I radio system. According to Commissioner Skip Gruber, it allowed all of the the county’s various agencies to operate under one system.

In Mobile, a $3.2 million project was awarded to Harris Corporation to set up a P-25 Phase I radio system on this side of the bay as well. Yet according to Jeya Selvaratnam, a consultant for the 911 board, the “interoperability” between the counties was never achieved.

“Nobody has ever used the [Mobile County] system or made any connectivity to it,” he said. “Somewhere, somebody dropped the ball. So now that system is no longer needed, and what you’re building today is an upgraded system to what you’ve already bought.”

Selvaratnam was referring to the $40 million P-25 Phase II system that has been heavily scrutinized by both law enforcement and the media over the past several months. That project was also awarded to Harris Corporation a year after the homeland security grant was received.

Though he didn’t deny someone “dropping the ball,” MCCD Director Gary Tanner said it wasn’t the 911 board. Instead, he pointed to Mobile County. Tanner said the county received the grant and the $770,000 refund from Harris after it was determined the specifications of the grant wouldn’t allow for “certain radio enhancements.”

“Now we want it, if Mobile County will let us have it, to use the money for the same purpose — to enhance current radios to the [Phase II] technology,” Tanner said. “That’s what I understand, but 911 didn’t have anything to do with the grant.”

Tanner’s claim of the 911 board’s ignorance of the grant was supported by other members including Oliver, Chairman Stephen Bowden and Rusty Holloway. When asked who was in charge of the project at the time, Tanner pointed to Eric Linsley, the county’s director of public safety communications.

Mobile County Engineer Joe Ruffer. (Gabe Tynes)

Mobile County Engineer Joe Ruffer. (Gabe Tynes)

Linsley works for the county’s public works department, which is supervised by former 911 board president and County Engineer Joe Ruffer. The same pair found themselves at the center of a recent controversy over the ongoing Harris project that highlighted the ambiguous ownership of the county’s current 911 system.

Though it’s mostly owned by the county, all maintenance for the current emergency radio system has been financed by the 911 board since January 2014 through Hurricane Electronics, an authorized dealer of Harris products.

Linsley and a handful of other qualified county employees were poised to transfer employment to the 911 board along with the system, but that move was abandoned after Ruffer abruptly resigned from the board last March. To date, no reason has been given for putting the transition on ice.

At last week’s meeting, Tanner said the system’s “leases, assets and everything” were ready when the transition was halted, adding it “wasn’t [the 911 board] that stopped it.”

Now, the board says Linsley, who wrote the specifications for the current Harris project, was also in charge of the Harris project in 2012 — a project that seems to have resulted in $2.4 million in equipment purchases first responders have never used.

Further details or comment were not immediately available, but a member of the county’s legal staff was able to confirm ongoing discussions about the $770,000 refund the county received from Harris in 2014.

Before leaving the meeting, Oliver asked if any of the equipment purchased through the $3.2 million grant could still be used to save money on the the current radio enhancement project. In response, Selvaratnam said a portion could have been used, had the board been aware of it earlier.

“We already bought another set already,” Selvaratnam said. “Harris ordered antennas and cables. We could have used the same antenna and cables, but you’ve already purchased more antennas and cables and already installed [them].”

As for the refund, Hartley said the strict language of the original grant prevents the county from spending it on anything but emergency radio enhancements. Even though it owns a radio system, Mobile County doesn’t operate it and thus can’t use the refund without somehow transferring it to the 911 board.

Tanner said accomplishing that could require approval from the Alabama Law Enforcement Agency. Lagniappe reached out to the ALEA about the grant funding but had not received a response by press time.