Breaker breaker, $20 million seems like a lot to spend on radios

February 12, 2006|By TIM ROWLAND

In this, the week the Washington County Commissioners set aside every year for the arduous purpose of giving themselves a big, public pat on the back, it was of all people Commissioner Bill Wivell who raised the most uncomfortable issue.

Wivell wanted to know how the county can engage in its favorite sport - criticizing the school board's bidding process - while at the same time writing a no-questions-asked check that is likely to top $20 million for an emergency radio system.

How do we know this is the best system at the best price? We have the word of a consultant. Oh good, I'm assured. Consultants have always worked out so well for the county in the past.

Bureaucratic defenders of the best walkie-talkie system money can buy say their situation is entirely different than the school board's situation (it's not) and that they really have no choice in the matter (they do) and that anyway, the County Commissioners are too simple to understand the complexities of radio equipment (no comment).


"It would be easy to misinterpret what a company was proposing," said Public Works Director Gary Rohrer, to which Wivell rejoined "And the commissioners are too stupid to figure it out?"

Um, I'll let that statement hang there for a while. Meantime I will say this: If a company cannot explain what its product does, I am not going to buy that product from that company. To me, "it's too complex" is code for "if you knew what this really did, you would realize we are charging you way too much."

Maybe if this county didn't have a history of falling for consultants, and maybe if it weren't all to easy to fall for the "you can't put a price on human lives" sales pitch, and maybe if the county didn't have a highly questionable track record on expenditures topping $10 million, it would be easier to look the other way.

But at the moment, I am not sold. I agree with Wivell: No one questions the need for a major communications overhaul; but this is an expense where we deserve the most transparency, not the least. And with apologies to consultants everywhere, I wouldn't trust one of them on an expense of $20, much less $20 million.

Oklahoma City, a town with more than a million people in its greater metro area, just rebuilt its communication system from the ground up for not a whole lot more than it's going to cost lil' ole Washington County, population 140k.

Twenty million is a third of a sewer debt and a quarter of a runway. On the up side, at least we will presumably have something worthwhile to show for it once it's done.

You expect a premium on rescue equipment. We all know that stripped of bells and whistles and chrome and twirling lights, a fire truck would cost a lot less. You can argue that this isn't necessarily a waste of money, since there's value in a fire company's community pride, and flashy equipment is a good recruiting tool for volunteers.

But the paradigm of emergency equipment add-ons makes me wonder whether all $20 million is going toward stuff we really need, or toward stuff that's really neat. Twenty million is $143 for every person in Washington County. You could buy every man, woman and child in Washington County a very generous cell-phone plan for that, and probably still have enough left over for radios that would let police and fire companies "talk to each other," which is the main problem.

Further, we just built the mother of all communication towers at the state police barracks, an erection that was supposed to solve all our reception problems - and now we have to build "several more" towers? Does that mean we were hoodwinked the first time or that we're being hoodwinked now? Seems to me, it's got to be one or the other. Did some radio salesman see us coming and say, "Sorry Washington County, you can't use that tower because you have very rare, Type O radio waves, and that tower won't take 'em."

Who knows? And without the transparency Wivell is talking about, we will never know.

It is also curious why there has been very little said about federal funding. The Department of Homeland Security has been throwing money at communities for just this sort of thing. Some communities have even appeared to be baffled by what to do with it all. And yet Washington County taxpayers are on the hook for the lion's share of this tab, with only a little coming from the feds. Is this just one more example of zero political influence in Washington on our behalf?

If this is another project of dubious excess, such as sewers or runways, the commissioners have picked a poor time to bring it up. Many people across the county who have been stung by their new, significantly higher tax assessments are pretty convinced right now that the county is raking in too much money. In a lot of minds, this $20 million on radios will prove it.

The county's message to the public this week was that everything is rosy. And in a lot of ways it is. These commissioners have probably done a better job of funding schools than any panel of the past. Their savings account for a rainy day is closing in on $30 million, which is an admirable feather in the county cap.

Perhaps it's a good problem to have, but when you're tossing $20 million at a radio set, things might almost appear too rosy. Taxpayers are going to see this extravagance and think one thing: "The county has too much money. Too much of my money."

Surely it is possible that every last penny of this project is legitimate. But who can remember seeing $20 million spent in this county with so little debate and so little explanation. Maybe the administration is correct; maybe we're stupid. But if we are, then the county should be less scared of a little independent analysis, not more.

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