In November, the Mobile County Communications District (MCCD) kicked off a $40 million communications enhancement project, yet a component of that project is now in the process of being removed after it was recently determined “no one ever wanted it.”
During a regular meeting last Thursday, board members approved a deductive change order that would remove the “OpenSky” technology from the $36 million contract they signed with Harris Communications in 2013.
During the meeting, Capt. Phillip Ballard of Mobile Fire and Rescue said most of the first responders in the county never had plans to use OpenSky because it is an “obsolete technology.”
He also said several departments let consultants know that during “end user” meetings prior to the contract being signed. Despite those concerns, the $1.5 million feature made it into the final contract.
“OpenSky is a wireless data system that operates at 19.2 kilobits per second. That’s extremely slow, probably slower than a fax machine,” Ballard said. “At the very first user meeting, we came in and asked for LTE equipped, which meant to completely eradicate OpenSky. It’s antiquated technology and it’s not going to meet the needs of us today much less in the future.”
However, the request for this change order comes only a month after some board members raised questions about the project’s high costs and the lack of financial accountability at the MCCD. Board member Trey Oliver brought it to the attention of the Mobile County Commission and has continued to be the main source of these and other questions about the contract with Harris Corporation.
Addressing his fellow board members May 14, Oliver didn’t mince words, calling the agreement with Harris “barely legal.”
“I feel like I’ve been duped and misled,” Oliver said. “There hasn’t been true transparency on this project, and the reputation of us as individual board members is on the line.”
Specifically, Oliver questioned involvement Harris had with MCCD prior to the bid process.
When MCCD Director Garry Tanner was asked during Thursday’s meeting, he said “Harris” would have helped Mobile County employee Eric Linsley come up with the specs for the project.
Oliver pulled minutes from July 2013 authorizing the board to advertise for bids on the project, and said that prior to that authorization the board was “prepared to do business with Harris,” and had even explored the option of issuing a “sole-source contract.”
Oliver then read previous board minutes authorizing work Harris performed for the MCCD in June 2013, one month before the board sent the project out to bid.
MCCD attorney Larry Wettermark said that work was to help condense the components of a seven-year capital improvements plan that included, among other improvements, the same radio enhancement program Harris would later be awarded through an open bid process.
“They went ahead and did a contract that accomplished it in three years but paid for it over seven years,” he said.
Wettermark made a point to say the project was bid out properly, which included advertisements in newspapers across the state for at least two weeks.
Because of the questions about the contract, Wettermark also gave a short presentation on the history of agreement with Harris. He said that in 2013, a significant change was about to befall the emergency communications world in Alabama as legislation passed the previous year was scheduled to change the MCCD’s entire funding process.
Prior to that, the MCCD had directly collected a fee assessed to each landline phone user, while wireless phone charges were collected by the state and then distributed by population to each communications district.
The new law created a 13-member state “911 board” that now collects all fees under a flat rate and then distributes them to each District based on a formula outlined in the 2012 legislation. That base distribution amount (BDA) was the cause of some serious concern on the MCCD board at the time.
“That BDA was based on the highest dollar amount you charged (Mobile County) users during the five years prior to the legislation,” Wettermark said. “This board had a relatively low charge of $1.25 because you were efficient. Other districts had a high charge of more than $5.”
According to Wettermark, Mobile County’s legislative delegation fought the bill for two years because of that formula.The deadline to establish a base distribution amount was originally September 2011, but an amendment the board lobbied for added a seventh-month extension. That gave the MCCD time to increase their fees from $1.25 to $4.75 for one nine-month period and set a higher base distribution amount for the future.
Today the MCCD receives about $11.5 million in income from the state 911 board, but without the amendment, that figure would look more like $6 million — money that would have been collected from Mobile County citizens regardless of where it’s redistributed.
However, one statutory requirement of the legislation says “if the proceeds exceed the amount of money necessary to fund district under the current budget, the district shall reduce its service charge to an amount equal to the need of the district.”
According to Wettermark, had anyone challenged the MCCD, the board could have lost the $5 million it had just secured. So, as was stated previously, the district went back to its seven-year capital improvements plan and had the radio system component compressed to a three-year plan.
With a shortfall in expenses of around $5 million, the $36 million contract paid over seven years was sufficient to show the needs of the district were equal to its new distribution formula.
That contract, awarded to Harris Corporation, was at least partially funded with a $34.9 million revenue bond issued last year in early October, just after the state 911 board began operating. The bond requires the MCCD to pledge all revenues over expenses to be spent on debt service until it’s paid off.
“That’s why the board entered into this radio contract, based on the seven-year capital plan,” Wettermark said. “It encumbered the money before the cutoff date of Sept. 30, 2013 and prevented basically destroying the base distribution amount we established through the legislature.
Updated at 12:25 p.m., May 21, to correct the title of Phillip Ballard. Originally, this story listed Ballard as a Captain with Mobile County EMS. Ballard is in fact a Captain with Mobile Fire Rescue.