At least four members of the Mobile County Communications District — commonly referred to as the 911 board — think the governmental body needs to curb its spending habits and become better stewards of taxpayer money.
At a meeting on April 9, Commissioner Trey Oliver expressed his perceived issues with overspending and what he considered to be a lack of financial oversight. Afterward, he highlighted those issues and more in an email sent to the Mobile County Commission at the beginning of the week.
Though Oliver authored the letter, in the first paragraph he said board Chairman Steve Bowden, Vice Chairman and Citronelle Police Chief Shane Stringer and Commissioner Cynthia Coleman share his “concerns.”
At the center of the commissioners’ concern is a $40 million communications system improvement project the MCCD touted at a ceremonial groundbreaking in November, which despite the project’s roots spanning back to 2012, was the first time it was formally announced to the public.
The project, partially funded with a $34.9 million revenue bond authorized by the Mobile County Commission, is supposed to improve the communication ability of first responders and allow other agencies to tap into local equipment during an emergency.
The project was awarded to the Harris Corporation in 2013, but Oliver — who’s been a vocal opponent — said he’s worried the upgrade will not substantially improve service for the first responders or the citizens of Mobile County.
He’s also said he’s seen “many red flags” since the project got off the ground, several of which dealt with the project’s finances.
On the same day it was announced — just minutes before that groundbreaking ceremony — the board approved more than $400,000 in change orders that were “inadvertently omitted.”
Of those, more than $100,000 was included for the cost of painting and lighting five new radio towers. Though a requirement of both the Federal Communications Commission and Federal Aviation Administration, Oliver said those details were left out of the original scope of work.
He also claims the first responders who’ll use the system weren’t involved in the discussion when the project was initially proposed. Independently, Lagniappe was able to confirm through two additional sources who work with the emergency communications system that input from their respective agencies wasn’t sought before the contract was signed.
“The end users are our first responders and the customers are the citizens. I think it wasn’t the best idea to commit this kind of money in such a hurry without end-user input on the front end ” Oliver said. “It was a couple years into the project before they finally held a meeting with (first responders), but the contract had already been established and submitted.”
Oliver said, to his knowledge, the contract also wasn’t bid competitively. He also said, as a board member since 2013, it’s taken him more than a year to get even a basic breakdown of how the money is being spent.
“That was the biggest alarm,” Oliver said. “Two weeks ago I got my hands on the pricing summary, and for this $40 million project, the proposal I was given had four line items. Four. I was incensed when I saw that.”
Oliver said the board is now working with TUSA Consultants to find ways to reduce the cost of the project, but said even having the board agree to that was difficult.
In his letter to county commissioners, he said at least two other board members voted against having an outside consultant to “manage the project and ensure accountability, quality and pricing oversight.” Though the project has been moving along, Oliver said Harris still hasn’t produced a formal timeline, which he’s requested. In the meantime, the MCCD is paying $22,000 a month to maintain its current radio system, according to Oliver.
“That’s $22,000 per month for a preventive maintenance contract by a local company that sometimes will only provide 30 hours of service per month,” Oliver wrote in his letter to commissioners. “Three county employees are currently on payroll who could perform many of the basic checks being performed.”
Despite his concern with the current project, Oliver said it’s not the only financial habits of the MCCD that worries him. The board – which has a $14 million budget this year — has recently seen a boost in revenue because of increased fees at the state level on cell phone and landline phone users, and Oliver has been a vocal proponent of spending that money wisely.
In the past year, Oliver has spoken out against what he called “excessive” merit raises the MCCD was implementing automatically. He also publicly took issue with a health insurance package that was tailored for a single retired employee — former Director George Williams.
“I’ve seen no effort to save money or reduce the cost of these projects. The district is slinging extra money around because all that extra revenue is coming through the state,” Oliver said. “I call it OPM or ‘other people’s money.’ People, especially politicians, get addicted to OPM like the drug Opium and they spend it with no respect to stewardship, transparency or oversight.”
Also in his letter to commissioners, Oliver addressed the recent resignation of former board president and Mobile County Engineer Joe Ruffer. Ruffer, who served on four county boards simultaneously, stepped down from all of them in March as advised by the Alabama Ethics Commission.
Since then, his position has not been filled, and Oliver encouraged the commission to fill his vacancy quickly saying the MCCD “desperately needs someone to bring the city of Mobile’s best interest to the table.”
Former Mobile Fire-Rescue Department Chief Stephen Dean has served on the board since 1999, and though he remains on the 911 board, Dean wasn’t reappointed to his position as fire chief when Mayor Sandy Stimpson took office in 2013.
In his letter, Oliver writes, “to say Commissioner Dean is not happy with the city would be a understatement.”
Attempts to reach MCCD Director Gary Tanner for a comment on this report were made, but as of press deadline were unsuccessful.