County officials are counting on the city of Mobile to fill a $1.5 million gap in the funding for a new emergency operations center (EOC) — a $10 million public safety project that’s been in the works for several years.As Lagniappe reported last month, the Mobile County Communications District agreed in March 2015 to indirectly contribute to the construction of a new EOC by purchasing a facility on McGregor Avenue currently used by the Mobile County Emergency Management Agency.
However, with a crop of new board members and a new director, MCCD has recently entertained the idea of backtracking on that promise. Now some are concerned moving forward with the real estate purchase may be at odds with state law.
At a meeting last week, MCCD Chairman Stephen Bowden said, “The only reason we were going to buy [the facility] was to have a way to help those guys get the new place.”
MCCD attorney Jeff Hartley said he would have “concerns” if that was the only motivation for the purchase. Now, a year after pledging to purchase the 60-year-old building as a backup facility, the MCCD board is considering whether a backup facility is needed at all.
“We definitely need a backup location for the phone systems we have there, but that could be more or less a closet in someone’s IT room,” MCCD Director Charlie McNichol said. “The question comes in whether we need a backup facility for bodies to go work in.”
To answer the question, the board tasked McNichol and a handful of board members with analyzing both the need for such a facility and the options currently available. However, that review could take up to a month, and the delay is putting the Mobile County Commission in a tight spot.
“This revelation that the 911 board is not planning to purchase the old civil defense building, which was part of what we were including in the cost for that building, has put us in sort of a time crunch as well as a financial crunch,” Commissioner Connie Hudson said. “Our best bet is to try to get more assistance from the city since they’re the other big partner in all this right now.”
The city of Mobile owns the land where the new EOC is slated for construction, but has also agreed to put $500,000 toward the project. On July 21, however, the County Commission sent a formal letter to Mobile Mayor Sandy Stimpson requesting an additional $1.5 million.
Stimpson’s spokesperson George Talbot told Lagniappe the mayor’s office had been in “regular contact with county officials regarding the EOC. Though he said “we support the project,” Talbot gave no indication as to whether the city would indulge the commission’s request.
The city has previously been uninterested in putting more into the project — rejecting an earlier proposal that would have split the cost of a $15 million facility with the county. Since then, the project has been cut down to $10 million, and Hudson said there may not be many places left to trim cost.
“I think it’s a great opportunity to get with the city and see if they’re willing to step up,” Hudson said. “I know they’re putting in a half million dollars, but we’re putting up nine and a half million dollars, and it affects the city of Mobile just as much as anybody.”
Commission President Jerry Carl floated the idea of seeking contributions from smaller cities in the county, as they’d also use the EOC as a base of operations during a disaster scenario. While she agreed, Hudson said that would “come down to ability” — adding the city and county usually carry “the lion’s share” in projects of this magnitude.
“I still think, at least in the future, we need to start asking the other cities if they’d participate in programs like this, because if we don’t ask, they won’t know,” Carl suggested. “We can’t expect them to volunteer.”