It seems radios needed for emergency services in the city of Mobile may have been left out of a $40 million radio enhancement contract the Mobile County Communication District approved in 2012 — the latest development in a sizable but controversial project.
Earlier this month, news of the firing of MCCD Director Gary Tanner overshadowed this detail when it emerged during the board’s regular meeting. Since then, officials with the city of Mobile have been working to identify what radios the city has, what it needs and exactly what MCCD has already paid for.
At the meeting Feb. 11, MCCD board members considered purchasing 20 radios law enforcement officers said will be needed when the P25 Phase II system is activated later this year. At an estimated cost of $100,000, some board members questioned why the additional expenses were necessary when the original 2012 contract with Harris Corporation included $20 million for radios alone.
“We are still taking the inventory of all the agencies, but the city police department and city fire department were completely left out of this purchase,” Jeya Selvaratnam, a consultant working with MCCD, told the board. “We still don’t have an account of how many radios they will need in the future.”Selvaratnam works with Tusa Consulting and has overseen the project’s progress, expenses and contractual requirements since the company was rehired by the MCCD board last year.
At this point, it’s still unclear why the city of Mobile — by far the largest user of the 911 system — would not have been included in the purchase of radios when every other agency in Mobile County was.
Originally the board was considering approving the purchase of those additional radios in February, but the motion was tabled to adequately determine how many radios were needed and to see if that quantity and previous contract with Harris could secure any reduction in price.
According to Selvaratnam, the radios cost roughly $7,000 each but come with several features that might not be required by most of the end users in Mobile County.
With that in mind, and given the history of the Harris contract, board member Trey Oliver asked why the extra radios had to be provided by Harris in the first place. Oliver, who has been critical of the 2012 contract despite voting to approve it, said he thinks it might be time to look for other options.
“I don’t think we should do any more business with them, personally,” Oliver said. “If they didn’t give us any discount on $20 million worth of radios, how in the hell are they going to give us any on $100,000 worth?”
In response, Selvaratnam said the board “should have negotiated with them” while the contract was being put together — something his employer, Nick Tusa, also pointed out to MCCD employees at the time.
In a 2012 email obtained by Lagniappe, Tusa wrote: “You folks have $40m worth of serious leverage to negotiate and secure a fair contract … let’s use it.” However, Selvaratnam said no discount was received. Tusa Consulting was later removed from overseeing the contract.
Mobile’s public safety director, retired Rear Adm. Richard Landolt, has been a MCCD board member since December. Landolt recently told Lagniappe he also has been working to determine what radios should have been included in the Harris contract and what the city’s public safety agencies may need going forward.
“I’m trying to find out, historically, how the head count was made for the contract and if it included Mobile in those numbers,” he said. “One person I spoke with said it did, and another said it did, but the board chose not to buy them because police and fire in Mobile already had their own radios.”
According to Selvaratnam, there are still “hundreds” of unopened radios in the warehouse of Hurricane Electronics, a Harris vendor, that were originally received in 2013. Those radios, he suggested, could be used by the MPD and Mobile Fire-Rescue in the meantime.
“If the city departments need additional radios immediately, you all have hundreds of radios at Hurricane [that are] already purchased,” Selvaratnam said. “We’re in an accelerated process of installation, but we still have radios, and at the end of this month, the next batch of radios is coming too.”
On Feb. 16., Landolt said those radios would be something to consider, but he and the city are still in the “discovery process” of examining a contract agreed to before the current administration took office in 2013.
Landolt said he wasn’t sure why millions of dollars worth of radios were allowed to sit in a warehouse for three years, but said he’d rather “they be used now to get them off the shelf.”
Landolt said he’s been to Chickasaw to view the radios, and confirmed those available would work on the new system with a software upgrade. However, the bill from the last software radio upgrade the city of Mobile recieved still hasn’t been paid — another detail brought out during last month’s meeting.
That upgrade for the radios being used currently racked up a cost of $250,000, and Mobile Fire-Rescue District Chief Philip Ballard said last month that the city was originally presented with the bill. He also described the payment as “still in limbo” with regard to who was going to pay it.
However, Landolt said he others from MCCD met with representatives from Harris on Feb. 17 and, as a result, he believes the city should never have been billed for the software upgrades because they were originally planned as part of Harris’ contract.
“Tusa says they’ve found a contract saying that upgrade was part of the project, and the city should not have been billed for it,” Landolt. “We’ve presented that to Harris.”
At the MCCD meeting March 10, Tusa Consulting is expected to present the board with information on how many radios are available, how many need to be purchased and whether a discount from Harris can be secured this time around.