COVINGTON, Ga. - When Newton County voters went to the polls in March of 2017 and reapproved the county’s Special Purpose local Option Sales Tax, or SPLOST, upgrades to the Covington Newton County 911 Center and new radio equipment for first responders were considered top priorities for some of the money raised from the tax.
Those upgrades and new radios could now be delayed after the county’s Board of Commissioners agreed by consensus Tuesday night to spend at least $100,000 in SPLOST money to put out a Request for Proposals or RFP for the project.
The move followed a presentation by 911 Director Mike Smith recommending that the county move forward with allowing $2.5 million of the $3.7 in SPLOST funds allocated for 911 improvements to be used for an upgrade to the county’s 911 infrastructure by Harris Inc. The original request for 911 upgrades from the 2017 SPLOST had been $5 million.
“Once we get this done, we will have P25 capability on our system,” he said. “This is what we were looking to do back in 2005. We wanted to get P25, which was the standard in public safety. We were not budgeted enough money in that SPLOST. We were budgeted about fifty percent of what we needed to get that done so the E911 Board of Governors chose to go with the Harris solution because it allowed us a path to migrate to P25 without starting completely over. So that’s why in 2005 they went with that solution.
“So today, many years later, we’re at the point where we’re ready to do that and get that done.”
Smith told The Covington News P25 is an open standard that came about after 9/11.
“When the towers collapsed, all public safety got together and said this should have never happened because the firefighters couldn’t talk to the police officers. The police officers were trying to tell the firefighters the building was about to collapse,” he said. “They went to the industry experts and after several years they came up with Project 25, P25, which is an open standard that says if you have that infrastructure out there, it’s a common infrastructure and common technology that all vendors will make radios to work on it.”
Smith explained to commissioners that once the infrastructure was complete agencies in the county will be able to buy radios from multiple vendors.
“The current system is a proprietary system. You have to buy their radios to work on that system,” he said. “P25 allows us to buy radios, either mobile radios or the walkies that the officers have from a multitude of vendors.”
Smith requested allowing the expenditure of $2.5 million to move forward with the infrastructure upgrades using the county’s sole source procurement policy.
“I’ve met with Ms. Martin (county attorney Megan) and discussed the project with her,” he said. “And it was confirmed that this does meet the sole source exception because of the fact that we are not building a new system. We’re turning on a feature upgrade to give us new technology added to the system.”
County Manager Lloyd Kerr said the best way to assure the county was getting the most for its dollar, the county should consider an RFP for the project.
“I spoke with both Harris and Motorola. They are the two primary folks that would be able to do a project of this magnitude and I received information from both of them, very good information,” he said. “Each presented arguments why theirs would be the best route to go and each presented counter arguments to the other as you might expect.
“There is some cost in doing an RFP in the neighborhood of about $100,000. Having said that, the money would have to come from SPLOST money. In the interest of making sure that we are getting the most that we can for our dollar and since I’ve been given information that it is possible for, Motorola has claimed that they could do the upgrade. I would just ask that you consider doing at RFP in the interest of making sure we’re getting the most for our money and indicating that we’ve done our due diligence on this project.”
Kerr continued, “It was a concern of mine and I know Sheriff Brown, who’s here, and I don’t want to speak for him. He’s articulated that on his own. It was his concern as well. He and I talked so we believe that this would be a good path to go down.
“Certainly there’s nothing wrong with doing sole source procurement, it fits that, but my recommendation would be to do RFP.”
Smith said he had communicated with Motorola about the upgrade.
“I just want to let everybody to know I did work with Motorola who is probably the only other vendor who can do something this size with this technology,” he said. “I did reach out to them for several months, did several site visits that had them come out and proposed to them and said to them you’re welcome to use any existing infrastructure that we have if you can do this because it’ll bring costs down.
“They conveyed to me that the only way that it could be done would was they would have to build an entirely brand new system that wouldn’t be integrated with anything that we have so that it would be a totally separate system that we would be building and we would have a cut off and turn on a system. I did speak to Motorola and they did say they could not upgrade what we have. It would be a new system.”
Kerr told commissioners that because of a 6-3 vote in favor of recommending the sole source procurement by the 911 Board of Governors, he had not asked Motorola to prepare a proposal.
“Since the Board of Governors had decided, there was a vote that was taken, to move ahead with a sole source, I did not want to solicit anything from Motorola except through an RFP process,” he said.
“I thought it best that if we were that if we were going to do an RFP, then we would be able to get all that information and compare apples to apples. Certainly both ways have positives and negatives. If you use a sole source then the obvious is you would have not considered others. We do know that the system is a Harris system. There are obviously would be some inherent advantages to utilizing that same equipment. On the other hand, we would not have seen anything else. We don’t know for certain whether or not the best proposal that’s out there.”
Kerr said to pursue an RFP, the county would first have to obtain an engineering firm capable of doing the RFP.
“So there would be an RFP for the RFP, in essence,” he said.
BOC Chairman Marcello Banes polled the commissioners for their thoughts on the issue. District 1 Commissioner Stan Edwards and District 5 Commissioner Ronnie Cowan agreed with allowing the sole source proposal to go forward. District 2 Commissioner Lanier Sims and District 3 Commissioner Nancy Schulz agreed with Kerr to pursue an RFP for the project. With District 4 Commissioner J.C. Henderson absent, Banes casts the deciding vote, electing to take Kerr’s recommendation and support an RFP.
The county told The News there is no guaranteeing the RFP would save taxpayers the $100,000 or so it is costing.
“It is our intention that the investment in the RFP will give us the best and most informed and educated decision which will be in the best interest of the taxpayers of Newton County. At this point we do not know what the end result of the RFP will be. The purpose of the RFP is to make a decision with all the information possible, including accurate cost information from multiple sources.”
Smith said the 911 Board of Governors is made up of the City of Covington police chief, fire chief and city manager, Oxford’s police chief, Porterdale’s police chief and the Newton County fire chief, sheriff and county manager. At a meeting in December 2017 meeting, Police Chiefs Stacey Cotton, Jason Cripps and David Harvey joined Piedmont Newton EMS Director Carli Cuendet, county fire Chief Michael Conner and Covington City Manager Leigh Anne Knight in voting to recommend the sole source procurement to the BOC.
Kerr, Sheriff Ezell Brown and Covington fire chief Stoney Bowles voted against the recommendation.
Cotton told The News, “The discussion for the RFP was to have other radio manufacturers submit for the upgrade which is impossible because Harris is the current system and you can only upgrade the current system with Harris equipment. Another manufacturer would have to price a complete new system which there is not enough money for a new system. The RFP will use anywhere from $100,000 to $200,000 dollars of the limited funds earmarked for the upgrade. Not only will the will this be an unnecessary use of the limited funds but it may jeopardize the needed upgrades because now there won’t be enough money to complete the much needed upgrades.”
Harvey concurred with Cotton, saying the board was working with the understanding that there would be an upgrade to the current system.
“Why spend time and money to have other bids, he said. “Anybody that comes in may have to start from scratch.
Harvey said the RFP seemed like a waste of money.
“It’s obvious Harris could do it cheaper.”
Knight said, “Based on the information I understood from the original discussion about requesting funding through SPLOST, E911 had intentions of “upgrading” their system. In my opinion, when you upgrade a system, you generally go back to the same supplier who provided the service initially. If you are considering an entirely new system, you would look at other suppliers to provide those quotes on a new system. We originally presented to the board and the citizens that we did not believe we needed a completely new system, only an upgrade to the system that we had in place.
“I believe the route we had established would provide the needed upgrade to the system at the most cost-effective manner for the citizens.”
Cripps told The News he voted with the understanding that the system would be upgraded.
“SPLOST was put in to upgrade the current system, not re-do the system. Every penny put into the system should go toward replacing radios and upgrading the system. That’s what was put on the ballot and voted on.”
Smith called the project “shovel ready” Tuesday night and told commissioners that with the sole source procurement upgrades could be completed in 6-8 months. He said now the work could be delayed 10-12 months while the RFP is pursued.
A year ago, one of the pressing needs for first responders was radio “dead spots” around the county. Smith said those dead spots exist today. He said the upgrade would have an impact on them.
“That’s the point of what we’re doing. We’re updating five sites and they’ve run the coverage maps,” he said, “Coincidentally, when Motorola came out and looked at what they’d do they chose the same five sites that Harris said, so they’re in agreement on what sites need to be updated and the coverage map shows that we’d significantly enhance the coverage.”