Attorneys with Mobile County and the Mobile County Communications District (911 Board) are working to untangle an undocumented agreement that has split the cost of regular maintenance for the radio network used by first responders for the last two years.
The issue boils down to two radio systems.
The first is EDACS, the current radio network used by police, fire and rescue agencies, as well as public works employees with Mobile County and some smaller municipalities in the area.
The second is the P25 Phase II radio system currently being constructed by Harris Corp. — a $40 million construction project rife with controversy.
Despite being distinct legal entities with independent governing bodies and funding sources, the county and the 911 Board continue to split the cost and responsibility of the existing system.
The maintenance on those 11 radio towers is divided, with the 911 Board maintaining three towers in accordance with a $12,000 monthly contract with Hurricane Electronics and the remaining eight taken care of by Mobile County, specifically by the electronics department supervised by Mobile County Engineer Joe Ruffer.
Until stepping down last year amid ethical questions, Ruffer was also previously the president of the 911 Board.
At roughly the same time as Ruffer’s resignation, a breakdown in communication began between the county and the 911 Board. Today, board member Trey Oliver told Lagniappe, most of the talking is done by attorneys.
“I haven’t heard really anything from the County Commission for at least the past year,” Oliver said. “There’s lousy communication. At one time we were all one big, happy family, but now it’s like we’re separated or going through divorce or something.”
Previously, Mobile County employee Eric Linsley, a Ruffer subordinate, worked closely with the 911 Board on its projects — attending meetings regularly to address technical questions and concerns. He was also one of a handful of employees prepared to transfer from Ruffer’s department over to 911 Board employment along with the ownership of all 911 radio assets.
Some of those same county employees are responsible for maintaining the county’s obligations with the radio towers today, which is the reason their transfer was originally planned. Though there’s been no evidence to suggest any correlation, the employee transfer plan was abandoned not long after Ruffer stepped away from the board.
So far, the Mobile County Commission has given no explanation for the change in course. Lagniappe reached out to county commissioners for comment, but so far a response has not been received. However, County Attorney Jay Ross did say he was working with the 911 Board’s attorney on several things, describing it as trying to “sit everyone down and get on the same page.”
Meanwhile, Oliver said the relationship between the two entities has been “tense” since the remaining 911 Board members launched an internal investigation last June into the contract behind the Harris Corp. contract. The results of that $17,000 investigation have still not been revealed to the majority of the board or the general public.
One issue lawyers are currently ironing out involves the existing radio system. Once the new Harris system goes live in late 2016 or early 2017, some board members are wondering why the 911 Board would continuing to pay maintenance costs on the old system.
During the board’s most recent meeting, Tusa Consulting employee Jeya Selvaratnam told the board he didn’t see any reason why it should pay continued maintenance costs, and some are even concerned it might be illegal for 911 Board funds to be spent on a network not primarily used by first responders.
The old system will still be used by public works employees at the county and city levels, which don’t have the necessary funding to upgrade related equipment to use the newer system — expenses that cost the 911 Board millions to facilite for the public safety agencies.
“The [911 Board] is not going to do anything to violate the law. We have to be meticulous that the money we spend is directly related to the dispatch or the delivery of emergency and public safety radio service,” Oliver said. “That doesn’t include public works.”
Contrary to Oliver, MCCD Director Gary Tanner thinks there would be no problem continuing to maintain to the old system, even if it wasn’t used by public safety personnel. According to Tanner, the old system has always been planned as a backup in the event the new system ever becomes compromised.
“It was a backup, a redundancy feature, planned from the project’s infancy in the seven-year plan created by the county. Then [the 911 Board] inherited that plan when the funds became available,” Tanner said. “If we didn’t maintain the EDACS system, small cities would have to fund their prorated share. It was not the intent from the beginning, and it’s not the intent today for small municipalities to pay for a service they could be provided for free.”
According to Tanner, the parts for the older system will continue production for at least the next 10 to 12 years — information he said he got from Linsley. However, while Tanner is keeping in touch with the county’s employees, board members do not appear to be doing the same.
Oliver said the “lousy” communication has left some board members confused, something he said has especially been an issue because three of the seven current board members were appointed as recently as last month.
“Linsley used to be in the building every single day, but he hasn’t darkened the doorway for some time, which just tells you how much things have deteriorated and decomposed over the last six to eight months,” Oliver said. “We keep hearing that everybody wants to move forward and do what’s right for the public, but we shouldn’t need lawyers for that, and it should certainly be a smoother transition than this.”
Updated on Jan. 21 to correct the name of the current radio system used by first responders in Mobile County. EDACS is the “enhanced digital access communication system.” Originally, this article incorrectly identified that system as “EDAX.”