With an internal investigation still pending, the Mobile County Communications District approved its largest budget yet on Thursday with almost $16 million of planned expenditures and a continued practice of annual merit raises for its employees.
Capital outlay projects and debt service make up the costliest section of the budget, with just under $10.5 million set aside for those expenses. Radio system improvements, equipment replacement, network upgrades and new office furniture make up some that cost.
The biggest chunk of capital expenses comes from a $4.8 million bond payment on a $34.9 million loan the board acquired to finance a $40 million emergency communications enhancement project awarded to Harris Corporation the same year.
The contract has been highly scrutinized by the public and the MCCD’s own board members in recent months and even prompted an investigation by the Mobile County District Attorney’s office.
The second highest line item is a $2 million appropriation set aside to purchase the Mobile County Emergency Management Agency’s current facility when the Mobile County Commission finds the funding to build a new facility.
Unlike the MCCD, the EMA is funded by the county, which has been planning a new emergency operations facility from a hodgepodge of funding sources for the better part of a decade. The Commission set aside $5.5 million for the new facility in its own multi-million dollar bond in July and recently received its third three-year extension on a $711,000 federal grant designated for the project.
For years, the MCCD has planned to do its part by purchasing the old facility and using it as a backup for its current operations center on Zeigler Boulevard. However, in this year’s budget, the appropriation for that purchase more than doubled from $762,236 to $2 million.
A designation in the budget suggested that increase was due to a more up-to-date appraisal. It is also worth mentioning that, until March of this year, Mobile County Engineer Joe Ruffer served on both the EMA’s board and as the chairman of the MCCD’s board.
Outside of capital expenses, salaries and personnel costs make up one of the largest expenses for the MCCD. In total, the MCCD is budgeting for $2.1 million in salary costs and almost $3 million in total personnel costs for its roughly 32 employees, which includes a planned 2.5 percent merit increase for all employees. That’s a $196,000 increase from the employee costs in the MCCD’s FY2015 budget.
Though the county commission is its appointing authority, MCCD employees are not governed by the Mobile County Personnel Board. However, MCCD Director Gary Tanner has repeatedly said the MCCD typically follows the guidelines of the personnel board for its salary ranges and merit increases, but other board members have openly denied those practices.
Last December, after an inquiry by board member and Mobile Metro Jail Warden Trey Oliver, the board agreed to stop a longstanding practice of offering annual merit increases of 5 percent — opting to lower the annual increase to 2.5 percent of each employee’s salary. The decision to continue with that 2.5 percent raise was approved by the board during a regular meeting Sept. 10.
At the time, Oliver cited a “growing discrepancy” between the salary of the MCCD’s employees and municipal employees who work alongside them in the call center.
Though the increased budget passed unanimously, only one point was discussed at length — a $500,000 increase to the general operating costs associated with the MCCD’s current emergency communications radio systems. Tanner said the increase includes the maintenance of the current radio system and the new system currently being constructed by Harris Corporation.
During the meeting, Tanner said the figure was a rough estimate, calling it a “shot in the dark.” Oliver took issue with the fact that the MCCD is continuing to maintain the current system even though it’s owned by Mobile County and not the MCCD.
“During that news conference, or whatever the county had, they said they had a lot of spare parts for this old system, and that’s fine for them, but I just don’t see us having to bear the expense of maintaining a system that their dump trucks, water trucks and garbage trucks use,” Oliver said. “That’s outside the scope of 911, and they had always maintained it up until we so gracious took that off their hands.”
Oliver also pointed out that the MCCD had paid Hurricane Electronics $22,000 per month for regular maintenance of the county’s emergency communications for a year and a half. After complaints arose about the recurring costs, the company agreed cut that maintenance agreement to $12,000 last month, with no reduction in services.
Despite Oliver’s complaints, the MCCD is still obligated to maintain those payments for the 16 months remaining on its contract with Hurricane Electronics. Going forward, Oliver suggested there be more specificity in the board’s budgeted expenditures and again called for more fiscal accountability.
“Let’s just keep in mind that with some of these expenses, we need to keep monitoring them and make sure we’re paying for something we shouldn’t be paying for — whether we have the money or not,” Oliver said.
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