The Mobile County Communications District has already begun work on a $40 million communications system improvement project, but minutes before a ceremonial groundbreaking Nov. 17, a requested change order related to the project raised questions from one of the seven commissioners.

The project, awarded to Harris Communications in 2013, seeks to enhance the emergency communications system throughout the county using Harris’ “Project 25 (P25)” 700 MHz radio system. It was partially funded with a $34.9 million revenue bond issued last year authorized by the Mobile County Commission.

To support new equipment, the project will also include the construction of five new communications towers at sites on Salco Road, in Citronelle, Wilmer, Bayou la Batre and on Bay Road.

Included in Harris’ bid was a structural analysis of all the system’s towers, a task subcontracted to local engineering firm Nell-Schaffer Inc. The analysis was completed in August and revealed structural weaknesses in two of the proposed towers, including the Mobile-Washington (MoWa) tower MCCD purchased for $100,000 in 2006.

The tower in the MoWa location was originally used for cable broadcasts and is significantly higher than the 680 feet needed to transmit emergency radio signals.

Steve Smith of Harris Communications said in its current state, the additional weight of the upgraded equipment would overstress the bottom of the tower, which is why the change order recommended removing the portion of the tower the district wouldn’t need. The changes to the tower are estimated to cost around $225,000.

The board approved a total of $406,600 in change orders last week. Other costs included $105,000 to paint the five new towers — an FAA requirement “inadvertently omitted” from the original bid.

Commissioner Trey Oliver, who voted against the change order, expressed concern over the cost and timing. Oliver said the project has been in discussion for more than a year and a half, and wanted to know why the problems with the towers were just being addressed.

“We couldn’t have the structure analyzed up front because we had to have someone know what (equipment) we were going to put on the towers,” MCCD Chairman Joe Ruffer said. “The board’s decision was to wrap that in a single packet. The change order couldn’t have been prevented.”  

As for the cost, Larry Wettermark — who recently replaced William H. Wasden as the board’s attorney — said by statute, there is no limit to the cost of a change order.

“There’s a lot of misconception on this, but the Alabama Department of Public Examiners only uses a 10 percent (of the original bid) mark as an audit flag with regards to change orders,” Wettermark explained. “If it’s reasonable, it won’t be criticized, and if you look at the scope of this project, the amount of these change orders are well below any audit flag.”

After much discussion, the board voted 6-1 to approve the change order, pending a review by Wettermark.

Oliver also questioned upgrades the MCCD has made in recent years, including those at the MoWa tower included in the change order. According to Eric Linsley, director public safety communications, $50,000 in equipment has been added to the tower since it was purchased in 2006.

Although when asked, former board member and Mobile County Sheriff’s Office employee David Benefield said the communication quality in the northern part of the county is the worst it’s ever been in his experience.

“For this kind of money, I’d like for you to tell me it’s the best it has ever been,” Oliver said. “A few months down the road, are they going to tell us this is better? We’re spending $32 million, I’d hope it’s at least somewhat better.”

Linsley assured Oliver there would be improvements, and also said Benefield’s comments were the first he’d heard of any complaints with the equipment. Other employees also went on to describe the quality of communication as “above average compared to other systems in the state.”

Oliver and Commissioner Cynthia Coleman — both of whom are employees of the MCSO — did not participate in the groundbreaking ceremony following meeting.

Smith said construction would begin soon and continue at several locations throughout the next five months. The project will then be in the hands of Hurricane Electronics, who was subcontracted by Harris to perform some of the technical work.

Ruffer said the total project cost also includes the purchase of portable radios and additional mobile units for all the public safety agencies in the county. An additional 29 Internet protocol dispatch consoles will be provided, which will allow dispatchers located at the 911 center on Ziegler Boulevard to communicate quickly and reliably to any desktop or mobile device.

Nine complete electronic communication shelters are also being installed along with the new additional communications towers. MCCD Director Gary Tanner said the Harris system would enhance the ability of firefighters, law enforcement officers and other first responders.

“These folks have made this possible today by finding the funds necessary to build this state-of-the-art communications system for our emergency communications system in Mobile County,” he said at the groundbreaking.

Tanner said the system should be operating within the next few months, and last year, said the bond would be paid back over a seven-year period by pledging all of the district’s revenues exceeding its operating expenses.

The MCCD set aside $15 million for planned expenditures in its FY 2015 budget, all of which were listed in operational funds. That’s just under the $16.9 million in total revenue the District has projected for 2015.

The largest expenditure of the 2015 budget is the $5.4 million set aside for capital improvements to the metro radio systems. According to the agreement between MCCD and bondholder Suntrust Equipment Finance and Leasing Corp., the district was schedule to pay back $4.7 million of bond this year.

Those payments are scheduled to increase until the last payment of nearly $5.2 million is made in 2019.

For years, 911 services were funded through a fee on landline phones that were able to utilize a county’s emergency services. Those fees were paid directly to the local district or in Mobile’s case, the MCCD.

Up until two years ago, cell phone fees were collected at the state level and then distributed to each district based on population, according to Tanner.

However, since 2012, the state 911 Board has collected all fees and distributed an amount to each district based on a formula in 2011 legislation that created the 13-member state board.

Though they were intended to stay the same for five years, the rates for those cell phone fees increased to $1.75 in August of this year.

Per the legislation, the current distribution method will continue through 2019. Tanner said 2015 will be the MCCD’s first full year projecting income using the new formula.