The condition of Montgomery County’s public safety communications system has become a real crisis over the last couple of months.
Revelations about the aging system’s degraded state began when it malfunctioned from the night of May 10 through the afternoon of May 11. That prompted a letter to County Executive Marc Elrich from Council Members Sidney Katz and Hans Riemer expressing concern about his apparent decision to delay the placement of two communications towers needed to modernize the system due to complaints from neighbors.
The system went down again on May 11, May 22 and May 28 but the executive has not changed his mind about considering alternate locations for the new towers. The firefighters union, Gov. Larry Hogan and the County Council are now all taking Elrich to task for delays in modernizing the system, with Riemer calling the situation “totally unacceptable and absolutely outrageous.”
Riemer is right but here is the cold reality: the situation has been unacceptable for years. It is only now that the system is experiencing repeated outages that it is receiving public attention.
There have been nine versions of capital project P340901, now known as the public safety system modernization project. The goal of the project is to modernize the county’s current public safety communications system, which was purchased in 1999 and began operations in 2003.
The original version of the project was a one-year, $3 million upgrade of voice radio equipment funded by federal aid in 2008. But the project soon began to expand in size and complexity, adding more equipment and eventually communications towers. County council staff also noted issues with vendor selection, antenna site selection and permitting requirements. The project’s cost exploded to $55 million in 2010 and $108 million in 2012. The most recent cost estimate is $111 million, although further delay will almost certainly increase it. The project’s completion was delayed to fiscal 2015 in 2010, 2017 in 2012 and 2019 in 2016. Council staff estimates the current completion date to be either 2021 or 2022.
That’s right, folks. This started out as a one-year, $3 million project and is now an 11-plus year, $111 million project. And counting.
One example of the council’s former level of interest in the project is a council staff memo from 2012.
In the memo, the council’s Public Safety and Government Operations Committees sounded remarkably unperturbed by an increase in the project’s cost from $53 million to $108 million. The project’s completion was also put off from fiscal 2014 to 2017. The committees, and the full council, approved the cost increase and delay with a meek request for “a detailed proposal and accurate cost estimates for the total project scope.” And so it went.
The issue now at hand is the impending placement of two communications towers, one in Olney and one near the Bretton Woods site in Darnestown. Elrich is seeking different locations for both of them. Council staff notes protests by “many” residents in Olney over the tower’s appearance but says this of the Darnestown site:
Similarly, a community advocate for the Agricultural Reserve expressed concern about the placement of another greenfield tower on Bretton Woods in Darnestown. It is Council staff’s understanding that only one person complained about this site. The County Executive has agreed to explore alternate locations for this tower as well.
Apparently, a complaint from one person is stopping the placement of a communications tower needed for public safety!
Elrich is taking the heat for these problems but he does not bear sole responsibility. Four council freshmen – District 1 member Andrew Friedson and at-large members Gabe Albornoz, Evan Glass and Will Jawando – are dealing with this issue for the first time.
But the five returning council members, along with Elrich, were on the council when the project was last delayed in 2016. Elrich and the three council members now in their third term were in office when the council approved multiple delays and cost increases.
This project is reminiscent of the most infamous project in recent MoCo history, the Silver Spring Transit Center. Like the public safety project, the transit center went through many years of cost increases and delays, eventually mutating from a $20 million project into a litigation-plagued $141 million monstrosity.
Then-County Executive Ike Leggett sued the project’s contractors for $47 million in cost overruns and $20 million in damages, vowing that taxpayers would not owe a single additional cent for the transit center’s problems. He eventually settled for $25 million, saying, “Despite what I said earlier, I thought this was the most reasonable avenue.” Wary of prejudicing the county’s position in court, the council did little other than vent in closed session and approve the cost increases sought by Leggett’s administration.
One interesting development that emerged from the transit center debacle was a 2014 report from the council’s Office of Legislative Oversight on change orders in construction projects. The report catalogued best practices in identifying particularly large, risky kinds of capital projects in which the county had little experience and mitigating their risk. The council could have embedded the report’s recommendations in legislation to try to prevent another capital project disaster like the transit center. Instead, the executive branch claimed to have adopted internal process changes. The council took them at their word and moved on.
And so here is the true failure of the county government: not only are huge cost increases and delays happening on a major capital project, but in the wake of the Silver Spring Transit Center, they are happening again.
Other than the four freshmen, Elrich’s critics on the council share responsibility for the public safety project’s history of delays and cost hikes. None of them get to assign blame without also accepting it. Hence, everybody loses the blame game.
The county must finish this project as soon as possible. The project must be audited to catalog its failures. And the results of that audit should be codified as required best practices in law to head off future issues on other mega-projects. Failure to do so will not merely cost money. In the case of the public safety communications system, it could cost lives as well.