With the approval of the board this morning, the Mobile County Communications District settled a couple of outlying issues with Hurricane Electronics — a move that could save the taxpayers of Mobile County approximately $200,000 over the next 17 months.
In June, when the MCCD agreed to self-investigate a $40 million communications enhancement contract awarded to Harris Corporation in 2013, several other questions were raised about Hurricane Electronics, Harris’ only authorized dealer in the region.Since January 2014, Hurricane Electronics has routinely charged around $22,000 each month for the regular maintenance of the county-owned emergency communications system. However, that expense was and continues to be funded by the MCCD, which at one point was planning on taking over the county’s ownership of the current radio network.
MCCD Director Gary Tanner said the 911 board was planning to stop using Hurricane’s services once a deal to transfer employees from Mobile County’s electronics department — including Director of Public Safety Communications Eric Lindsley — was finalized.
Though the reasons why are unclear, that transfer was ultimately abandoned along with the MCCD’s plans to take over the system.
In April, MCCD board member and Mobile Metro Jail Warden Trey Oliver wrote the Mobile County Commission a formal letter complaining about a “lack of financial accountability” on MCCD’s board. In the letter, Oliver cited Hurricane’s $22,000 monthly invoices as an example.
In the past two months, the board’s newest attorney, Jeff Hartley, has been conducting negotiations with Hurricane Electronics in an attempt to reduce that cost. On Thursday, the board approved a new rate of $12,000 — a nearly 50 percent reduction in cost with no changes to the scope of work.
“Hurricane has agreed, after some negotiation, to lower that figure for the remainder of the contract,” Hartley said. “The service won’t change, the parameters won’t change, what they’re obligated to do won’t change and our turnaround time for service won’t change. The only change will be the monthly obligation of the district.”
Hartley deferred questions from the media to the MCCD staff, but when Lagniappe asked Deputy Director Charlie McNichol how such a drastic drop in price was possible, he said that was “probably a better question for Hurricane.”
Hurricane Electronics CEO Dirk Young told Lagniappe the company’s contract retrained services for the MCCD within a matter of hours. Originally, the monthly price of $22,000 was arrived at as an estimate of what it might cost in the event “unknown tasks” such as recovery and maintenance during natural disasters like tornadoes and hurricanes.
Young said the past year has been favorable, in that there hasn’t been any “major outages that have caused (Hurricane) to to spend a lot of time” on the system’s maintenance. He said the company’s low overhead on the front end of the contract made reducing the cost for the remaining 17 months possible.
“We’re 18 months into the contact, and I can look at the history and have good legacy data that says, ‘here’s what you’re spending and here’s the events that have taken place,’” Young said. “You make that decision as a business. Clearly they’re trying to save money where they can. Being a good partner and having a long history with Mobile County and the 911 board, we felt that for the remainder of this contract, we could reduce the rate to that $12,000 a month figure and still be able to provide the same level of service.”
The reduction in cost wasn’t the only issue brought to light by Oliver’s digging. A few weeks later it was revealed that MCCD had also maintained a Hurricane antenna on one of its radio towers in South Washington County since 2009 — a piece of equipment Hurricane uses for a subscription-based radio network.
Based on current rates, the board said in June that Hurricane had saved around $28,000 over the six-year period it took advantage of the MCCD’s “verbal agreement” to allow the use of that tower.
Two months later, it’s still unclear who authorized the verbal agreement, but on Thursday, the board approved a resolution with Hurricane that would pay MCCD a single lump sum payment of $32,625 for the use of the tower. Hartley said that figure is slightly above the market rate. Young also confirmed to Lagniappe that tower had been removed in July.
“The combination of those two things, the antenna and lowering the (monthly cost of maintenance) is a savings of over $200,000,” Hartley said. “I appreciate Hurricane’s willingness to step up and work with me on these things, and they have worked in earnest over the past four weeks.”
Hartley said the remainder of the contract should cost the board about $167,000 for the next 17 months. Once that three-year contract ends, it will be up to the 911 board to continue using a third party or hire additional staff to maintain the system in-house.
However, Tanner said he personally hopes the county steps up to fund the maintenance and management of the system it already owns the majority of.
“I hope and pray the county retains the management of the system and the 911 board runs 911,” Tanner said. “We’re capable of doing it, but we would hope that Eric and the system travel together. With his expertise, they can hire more people.”
Harris ContractThe contract with Harris Corporation is currently the subject of an internal investigation by the MCCD and an external one by the Mobile County District Attorney’s office, but not much was said about it during Thursday’s meeting.
A representative of Tusa Consulting, which was hired to help manage the project, said there wasn’t anything to report because the project hasn’t moved forward since the board halted all payments to Harris in late June pending the outcome of its investigation.
Hartley has also been in “serious negotiations” with Harris over the removal of a $2.5 million project component the board later deemed unnecessary, but he said the resolution to that issue is going to “take some time.”
“Anything past that we’d likely have to discuss in an executive session, but we’re not there yet,” Hartley said.
Typically, executive sessions are reserved for pending legal matters, but as of now there’s been no overt talks of litigation over the frozen contract with Harris. To date, the company has only issued a single blanket statement on the matter through a PR firm they employ.
“Harris Corporation states without reservation that it has delivered to date on all aspects and requirements of our contract with the Mobile County 911 Board,” said Victoria B. Dillon, Director of Marketing and Communications for Harris. “We fully expect to continue executing on our contract, and we trust that Mobile County will also continue to meet their obligations.”
The contract with Harris was approved during a special-called board meeting on Sept. 10, 2013.
Through audio recordings from that meeting were recently released through Mobile County Engineer and former board member Joe Ruffer, until this morning, the minutes for the meeting had not been officially approved and available on the record.
MCCD conflict of interest policy
Though the MCCD has existed since 1984, the board only approved its first conflict of interest policy for board members and high-level employees of the organization on Thursday.
The idea of Board Chairman Dr. Stephen Bowden, the new policy sets guidelines for the disclosure of possible conflicts of interest with corporations and organizations MCCD officials may know or actively represent.
Hartley said the policy would apply to vendors as well as of the organizations of first responders the board members represent. He went on to compare those relationships to ones between doctors and pharmaceutical representatives.
“They interact on a daily basis, but there are some parameters that are required,” Hartley said. “You could think of any industry, most of them have some sort of disclosure statement because most folks want to know how you’re interacting with vendors. This will address that.”The document was only a draft and hasn’t been approved, but Bowden said he’s wanted something similar for years and insisted the urge for more transparency wasn’t a response to the recent controversy over a county employee’s possible ties to Harris.
Other media began to suggest there could be a conflict of interest with Linsley’s involvement with a Harris Wireless Users Group. According to Harris, the users group is an entirely independent body that has nothing to do with the operations of the company.
Lindsley maintained during a recent press briefing that his involvement and leadership roles in the group were only to provide feedback as a long-time user of Harris products.
“It’s not prompted by any of this stuff, it’s just something I’ve asked for,” Bowden said of the new policy. “We just didn’t have anything in place to address this, and we knew we needed to get to this with all this other stuff going on.”
In addition to that development, Tanner said the Alabama’s State 911 Board would soon be requiring local board members to fill out annual Statement of Economic Interest forms with the Alabama Ethics Commission and undergo state ethics training.
According to visitation records, Jason Jackson, the executive director of the State 911 Board, stopped by the MCCD on Wednesday, but the details of the visit were not disclosed. Multiple attempts to reach Jackson over the past two weeks have been unsuccessful.
Also at Thursday’s meeting, veteran board member Rusty Holloway announced he would be resigning from the board by the end of 2015. Holloway was appointed to the board when it was founded and has served on it since with the exception of a three-year hiatus.
He’s also a 36-year veteran of the Tanner Williams Volunteer Fire Department. He resigned his position as chief of that department at the end of July.
Update: This story was updated at 1:22 p.m., Aug. 13, to include statements from Hurricane Electronics CEO Dirk Young.
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