Over the past three months the Mobile County Communications District (MCCD) — also referred to as the 911 board — has been asking a lot of questions about a $40.1 million communications enhancement contract from 2013. Now those questions have prompted the board to launch an independent investigation into the project.
The contract, signed with Harris Communications, was mostly financed through a $34.9 million revenue bond issued in 2013 and authorized by the Mobile County Commission, but lately the management and financial oversight of the contract has come into question — specifically by MCCD board member Trey Oliver.Oliver recently led a series of tense discussions about the contract that have already caused a handful of changes, including bringing in a third-party consultant to manage the project and the removal of a $1.5 million unnecessary feature that was included in the original contract.
Despite the changes, Oliver said he is still uncomfortable with the contract he has publicly called “barely legal.” He went on to say he hasn’t been reassured by the MCCD, the county or Harris Communications, leading him to call for the independent investigation June 11.
“Over the past few months we’ve been met with resistance, obstruction, misleading and foot-dragging, which I categorize [as] mismanagement,” Oliver said while making his motion. “This does not pass the sniff test, and we’re duty-bound to make sure there’s responsibility and transparency.”
In prior meetings, Oliver’s questions have received abrasive responses from both current and former members of the board. Since, Tusa Consulting has been hired to mediate between Harris and the MCCD, and during last week’s meeting board member Rusty Holloway said the consultant had “opened the [board’s] eyes” to some things.
Specifically, the board approved spending up to $5,000 over the next 30 days to get the investigation started but left room to add more funding if necessary. Though no specifics were outlined, Oliver said he’d like the board to hire an investigator and an independent auditor to review emails, computer forensics and make sure the board didn’t violate any laws or ethics.
When commission chairman Stephen Bowden asked if he wanted to delay his motion, Oliver said no.
“I don’t want to wind up the subject of a federal investigation,” he said. “We need this to get started today, before information starts disappearing.”
Put simply, the Harris contract is a radio systems upgrade that includes new radios for first responders and adding or enhancing radio towers in the MCCD network.
The current system is being maintained by Hurricane Electronics at a monthly cost of around $22,000. However, it was revealed on Thursday the MCCD has maintained a Hurricane antenna on a South Washington County radio tower the MCCD purchased in 2006. Apparently, the tower has housed Hurricane’s antenna since 2009; it is used for a radio network to which Hurricane sells subscriptions.
However, the board agreed to give Hurricane 30 days to remove its equipment and will be looking into charging retroactive fees related to Hurricane’s use of the tower over the past six years.
Though the county’s actual loss in the arrangement was not disclosed, MCCD Director Garry Tanner said similar towers, like those owned by the Mobile Area Water and Sewer Service, charge approximately $400 a month for third parties to attach their own antennas. Over a six-year period, that would amount to $28,800.
Oliver and other members said they were alarmed to have just been informed about Hurricane Electronics’ antenna, but no one on the MCCD staff was able to say whose idea it was to allow the company to freely use the publicly maintained tower — though Tanner did acknowledge a Hurricane sales executive set up the sale of the tower before it was purchased by MCCD.
Hurricane President and CEO Dirk Young said “the administration” when the tower was purchased “didn’t see it being an issue.”
“It was a verbal agreement. There was nothing written on the record,” Young said. “We didn’t realize it was an issue until just recently.”
Though Young said the sudden contention with the antenna was surprising, he also said Hurricane has every intention to remove it without protesting the “verbal agreement.”
“We’re happy to work with them any way we can,” Young said. “If there’s an issue with that, we want to know about it. We’re an above-board and ethical company. If we’re breaking the rules we just need to know so we can fix it.”
Of the $40 million contract, around half of the expense is tied to personal radios intended for police, firefighters and emergency medical technicians throughout the county.
However, during a recent update on the project, consultant Nick Tusa said 1,081 radios valued at just under $5 million have sat unused in a warehouse since 2013.
And because Harris only agreed to a two-year warranty, the warranty on the unused radios is set to expire in September.
Steve Smith of Harris Communications attended the meeting and said they were using Hurricane to install the radios, and had received them at the start of the contract.
“The county side of that equation has not been forthcoming with vehicles at the pace we’re able to install them,” Smith told the board.
None of the staff at the meeting could give an answer for the delay, but Tusa said he is working with Harris on extending the warranty because the vast majority of the radios haven’t been used.
When asked about the radios, Young said they could have previously been installed and used with the current radio system. He also said it was only a small component of the much large project Harris is undertaking with the MCCD.
“That part of this entire purchase is just one task that should be completed by the time the system goes live and becomes useful,” Young said. “It’s just part of the process.”
Updated on June 16 to include comments from Hurricane Electronics CEO Dirk Young.