Floridians should feel relieved Gov. Rick Scott and the Florida Legislature insisted on open and competitive bidding for a new Statewide Law Enforcement Radio System (SLERS).
After what happened in Pennsylvania, Florida will want a chance to look beyond the dollar figure of each bid for P25 equipment and consider the bidder's performance.
Pennsylvania had such a bad experience with their police-radio contract that after two decades, hundreds of millions of wasted dollars, and problems that never did get fixed, the state kicked the contractor off the job. Fired him.
It's a vendor Florida knows well.
Since 2014, when Sunshine State News first began writing about the new SLERS system, all we asked was that all bidders compete for the system, which likely would cost in the neighborhood of $500 million. Competitive bids on big-ticket items are called for in Chapter 287 of the Florida Statutes, Procurement of Personal Property and Services, 287.0571(4). SSN did not favor one over the other.
Nevertheless, since 2014, current contract holder Harris Corp. of Melbourne has worked to position itself to renew one of the most lucrative contracts in state government by cutting out competitive bids on the updated SLERS. Twice it's had multi-million-dollar "emergency" contracts approved for radio upgrades, even though no law enforcement agency -- particularly in 2016 -- requested them. Last year, House Speaker Steve Crisafulli, R-Merritt Island and Rep. Ritch Workman, R-Melbourne, both Harris homeboys, made sure the company got a $7 million emergency contract as the last order of budget business in the 2016 legislative session.
I bring this up now because it's the Harris Corp. of Melbourne -- Florida's current vendor, the vendor trying occupy the catbird's seat in the process -- that was just bounced out of Pennsylvania.
Pennsylvania watchdog weekly The Caucus just presented an exhaustive report, results of a four-month study detailing the story of a dysfunctional statewide radio network for law enforcement "which cost Keystone State taxpayers more than $800 million ..." And "it never fully worked."
According to public documents and dozens of interviews, "It was based on a contract run amok and ranks as one of the longest-running boondoggles in modern Pennsylvania history."
Investigative reporters Brad Bumsted and Paula Knudsen wrote in the first part of their cover story, on Feb. 21, 2017, that several top state officials during the contract's tenure had ties to Harris Corp., which had acquired M/A-COM, the original contractor, in 2009.
The Caucus investigation revealed a "revolving door" between the state and the contractors; government officials involved in the project later took jobs with M/A-COM or Harris.
Initial funding of $179 million for the radio system, to be used by state law enforcement and local agencies, was approved in 1996. The cost ballooned over two decades because of inadequate legislative oversight, a contractor that "ran the show" and proprietary equipment manufactured by Harris Corp. that made some parts useless and expensive to replace, the report said.
(The Caucus is a subscription-only publication, therefore I am unable to link to it. Part 1, called "Radio Silence," is too large to attach here. But Part 2, "On Notice," is shorter and is attached below.)
Here's a look at some of the bad will Harris built up in Pennsylvania:
- In 2011, a Harrisburg Patriot-News editorial reported that “law enforcement agents said they have been in dangerous situations with radios that they can’t trust will work. It also detailed an incident an undercover agent "in a precarious situation because his radio didn’t work. He was going to a meeting with a suspected drug dealer in Philadelphia and because he couldn't be reached by radio. another agent had to catch up to him on the street to tell him the sting operation was called off because it was too dangerous.”
- Again in 2011, after spending nearly $500 million, the problems prompted state senator Mike Folmer,R-Lebanon to urge the state to sell the radio system or privatize all or part of it.
- Another Patriot-News report in 2011 found that “troopers experience 161 service outages on average each month.”
- A 2012 WTAE television report in Pittsburgh revealed consistent problems in West Finley in Washington County, including dead air and lost contact with radio dispatchers. According to the report, “firefighters often have to relay messages for troopers despite them having a radio antenna next to the fire station.”
- When asked about the system’s problems, West Finley Fire Department Chief Steve Emery said, “I've had to actually take our squad from a call, drive up on a hill and call the control center to relay to state police what they needed.”
Next thing you know, the Harris contract was canceled, heads are still rolling in Pennsylvania and taxpayers haven't finished paying for their radios yet. In fact, they're not even close.
Harris nevertheless staunchly defends its work in Pennsylvania.
"Harris is proud of the success of the 800 MHz PA-STARNet Radio System that we, and our predecessors, helped to develop and have maintained during the past 17 years," Harris spokeswoman Pam Cowan told The Caucus. "It is one of the largest public safety systems in the United States and Harris was proud to partner with the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, its public safety users and the citizens they serve."
If Harris was in over its head in the Keystone State, what's going to happen if it wins the bid in Florida? Did the Melbourne company try to dodge around a competitive bid process because officials there suspected it might not be up to the challenge? Somebody at the Department of Management Services might want to look at the "trouble timeline" in Pennsylvania before the new vendor is chosen.
Reach Nancy Smith at firstname.lastname@example.org or at 228-282-2423. Twitter: @NancyLBSmith
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