With the approval of the board last week, the Mobile County Communications District (MCCD) 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 questions were raised about Hurricane Electronics, Harris’ only authorized dealer in the region.
Since January 2014, Hurricane Electronics has routinely charged around $22,000 a month for regular maintenance of the county’s emergency communications system. However, that expense was and continues to be funded by the MCCD, which at one point was planning to take over the county’s ownership of the current radio network.
MCCD Director Gary Tanner said the 911 board planned 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 are unclear, that transfer was ultimately abandoned along with the MCCD’s plans to take over the system.
In the past two months, attorney Jeff Hartley has been conducting negotiations with Hurricane Electronics in an attempt to reduce that cost, and on Aug. 13, the board approved a new rate of $12,000 — a nearly 50 percent reduction with no changes to the scope of work.
“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,” Hartley said. “The only change will be the monthly obligation of the district.”
The MCCD staff couldn’t give a reason for the drastic drop in price, but Hurricane Electronics CEO Dirk Young told Lagniappe the original $22,000 monthly charge was based on an estimate.
Expanding on that, Young said the figure was arrived at based on “what it might cost in the event unknown tasks,” such as the recovery from natural disasters, are required.
Young said the past year has been favorable, in that there haven’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 contract, 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 raised with Hurricane Electronics. About two months ago, it was revealed to the board members that the MCCD had maintained a Hurricane antenna on one of its public radio towers in South Washington County since 2009.
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 late last week, the board approved a resolution with Hurricane that would pay MCCD a single lump sum of $32,625 for use of the tower.
The antenna has since been removed and the lump-sum payment, together with the money saved on the monthly contract, should save the board around $200,000, according to Hartley.
The remainder of the contract should cost the board about $167,000 through the next 17 months, but 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.
Tanner said he personally hopes the county steps up to fund the maintenance and management of the system, which it already largely owns.
“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.”
The contract with Harris Corporation is currently the subject of an internal investigation by MCCD and an external one by the Mobile County District Attorney’s office, but not much was said about it during last 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.
The contract with Harris was approved during a special-called board meeting on Sept. 10, 2013, and although audio recordings from that meeting were recently released through Mobile County Engineer and former board member Joe Ruffer, until its meeting last week the MCCD board had not officially approved them and made them available on the record.