After months of closed contract negotiations, the Mobile County Communications District was able to shave just under $5 million off of a $40 million emergency communications enhancement project that was awarded to Harris Corporation in 2013.

The contract itself has been under significant scrutiny since June, when the MCCD board, often referred to as the 911 board, voted to halt all payments and progress on the project until an independent review panel could examine the history of the contract.

Commissioners from the Mobile County Communications District and Harris Communications representatives break ground on a $40 million emergency communications project Nov. 18.

Commissioners from the Mobile County Communications District and Harris Communications representatives break ground on a $40 million emergency communications project Nov. 18.

To date, the panel of former FBI agents, private investigators and forensic accountants has charged the MCCD nearly $20,000, but board member Trey Oliver believes the fee is worth what it ultimately saved the county.

“The fruits of this labor was still made possible through independent review panel,” Oliver said.

Still, the “fruits” of the review panel’s labor may have not been fully realized. So far, only the MCCD’s attorney Jeff Hartley has reviewed their findings, which at this point haven’t been reviewed by the board members, the media or the general public.

The bulk of the $5 million figure is made up of charges that were already under scrutiny prior to the development of the independent review panel. It includes the removal of a component of the contract known as “OpenSky” — an older communications software that allows data to transferred at speeds considered slow by today’s technology standards.

In May, members of several law enforcement and first responder agencies told the 911 board they never needed or wanted the “Open Sky” component. At the time, the board asked its attorney to begin negotiations to have the component removed and the overall contract price reduced accordingly.

On Thursday, Hartley said Harris agreed to remove “Open Sky” — a move that saved the District $4,180,000. Oliver said even though the board took action in May, the work of the independent review panel expedited the process and ultimately made the price drop possible.

“A lot of people who don’t keep up with the details might say, ‘well, this would have happened regardless,’” Oliver said. “That’s just not the case.”

Addressing the board, Hartley said Harris was “very receptive” to the board’s contract negotiations and the company “reacted in a very professional and positive way.” He also highlighted some other savings the negotiations with Harris yielded.

Those changes included:

• An extended warranty on 1,080 radios, batteries and handheld devices.
• An added comprehensive training program for MCCD employees to teach them to use new equipment .
• A $105,000 reduction to a $406,600 change order Harris requested in November, which means Harris will absorb the cost of making certain towers compliant with Federal Aviation Administration requirements.
• Harris will pay to reduce the height of another tower down to 600 feet, and double the amount of guidewires needed to support it at no cost to the MCCD. The original estimate of that work was $225,000.
• An adjusted schedule for the remainder of the project.
• An enhanced system acceptance test, which will determine if the project has been successfully implemented once all its features are installed. Harris’ final payments hinge upon the results of that test.

Hartley said the $5 million savings comprised these changes and their estimated values to the $200,000 the 911 board saved during recent contract renegotiations with its radio maintenance provider, Hurricane Electronics.

Many of the cost saving measures were presented to the board by a consultant prior to the original contract being signed in 2013, according to a series of emails obtained by Lagniappe. The company, Tusa Consulting, was later removed from managing the project but was brought back on this year at the behest of Oliver.

Oliver pointed out that fact when he addressed Tusa Consulting’s founder, Nick Tusa, during the Thursday’s meeting.

“It would seem we’re doing now on the back end what you wanted to do on the front end,” Oliver said. Tusa agreed, adding that the negotiations were much more advantageous for Harris because they already had a signed, legally binding contract with the MCCD.

Still, Tusa said the renegotiation with Harris was very beneficial for the District and for taxpayers.

“We would have had more leverage to negotiate if we’d done it on the front end,” Tusa said. “Harris did have a contact in place, but they worked with us in good faith in developing a cost reduction. We couldn’t get everything of course because they had built some of the equipment so there were restocking charges involved, but I believe we got a very fair deal.”