It took five years for Palm Coast and Flagler County governments to resolve their differences over a water agreement at the county-owned Flagler County Airport. There, the city had held the airport’s access to water at its southern end hostage to disputed wording in a mutual agreement both governments had approved. The issue was finally resolved a few weeks ago.
A new clash is again undermining relations between the two governments, this one with potentially more far-reaching consequences, as it affects the county’s 800 mhz communications system, on which the city relies. Palm Coast is threatening to pull out of an agreement it signed in 2009 to be part of the system. It has already quit contributing the money it owed the system, according to the 2009 agreement—placing the city in violation of the agreement, according to the county.
The city claims the county has not lived up to the agreement, primarily because the county hasn’t notified the city of intended upgrades, and because the city hasn’t had a seat at the table in discussions about that upgrade. The county says the city is wildly misinformed, and not understanding the communications system.
The bottom line: Palm Coast for more than two years has refused to pay $600,000 of the $1.5 million it owes the county’s 800 mhz escrow account. That account is designed to underwrite future upgrades, with the county contributing $1.5 million of its own. Now, Palm Coast wants to be reimbursed the $900,000 it has already paid into the account, and it wants out of the 2009 agreement. That means the city would no longer be allowed to have its utility and public works employees communicate through the system, though the city’s firefighters can still do so.
A clash that reflects an undercurrent of tensions between Palm Coast and the county that goes beyond the issue at stake.
The county is not necessarily fighting the city’s recent moves, but it is seeking to clarify its motives, especially since, without the city, future upgrades would be prohibitively expensive for the county to shoulder on its own. Meanwhile, however, County Administrator Craig Coffey is telling the city that the county is doing the city a favor by letting it ride on the 800 mhz system, so the city should either pay its share or get off the system.
The development, evident in an exchange of emails between the city and the county, is the latest clash to undermine the relationship between the two governments, in addition to the parallel dispute over the county’s ambulance system (the city wants to change the system to either be paid for some of the life-saving services its firefighters provide, or to have its own ambulance system). The clashes are again bringing tensions between Coffey and City Manager Jim Landon to the surface, though just as notably, those tensions appear nowhere near as acute between the two elected bodies.
Barbara Revels, just appointed chairperson of the county commission, said it may be time to gather key officials from both sides, with lawyers present, to hash out the disagreements and get clarity on what the 2009 agreement means to each side, and how differences may be resolved, if in fact the city wants a resolution. Much of the disagreements, Revels said, are the result of misunderstandings.
Coffey concurs, saying that Landon is confusing the county’s upgrades to its 911 computer-assisted dispatching system with future upgrades to the 800 mhz system. The two have nothing to do with each other, Coffey said.
“We might need to do a powerpoint for the whole council,” Coffey said, referring to the Palm Coasty City Council. “When you just meet with the mayor or Mr. Landon I’m concerned about the knowledge base of the rest of the council. We get painted in a poor light at times and unfortunately we don’t always get the opportunity to get unpainted and change that perception.”
The timeline of the issue is less complicated than the intricacies of the 800 mhz system.
In 2004, Palm Coast built its own communications system, with a single communications tower serving the whole city, for about $1 million. But that was for its own employees. It only had a volunteer fire department at the time, but when it started its own fire department, those first responders were immediately part of the county’s communications system, as they are required to be.
In 2009, the city decided to end its own communications system and hop onto the county’s. It would be more efficient and less expensive. The 800 mhz system is more versatile and safer: it enables all agencies that share it to communicate with each other almost (but not quite) simultaneously. In Flagler County, the sheriff’s office, every city’s fire department, the county’s fire department and other agencies share the 800 system. Only the school board is not on it.
Palm Coast and the county signed an eight-page interlocal agreement drawing up the terms of that cooperation. The agreement made clear that it was the county being “willing to allow the city to become a user on its system,” but that the county retained all control of the system and its backbone. The county was allowing Palm Coast to use the system “at no cost to the city,” other than for expected upgrades. The agreement gave no rights of ownership or control to the city over the backbone of the system. The city paid the county $217,000 to accommodate the merger, but it was still up to the county to provide all maintenance, as it has.
In 2009, the county and the city agreed that a “Phase II” upgrade would be necessary at some point in the future. That point was not determined. But money for the upgrade was: $3 million. The sum was to be split between Palm Coast and the county, with Palm Coast contributing $300,000 a year into an escrow account, for five years. Palm Coast contributed three installments. Then it quit.
Weirdly, Landon’s only formal notification to the county that he was quitting the payments was through a November 13, 2013 email to a billing clerk in the county administration—not to Coffey or anyone in the county administration or on the county commission. And his decision resulted from no action by the city council, though he notes in the email that notification was conveyed “through the communications committee.” (Two years ago, when Coffey and Landon were still talking frequently, Coffey confronted Landon about sending the email to a clerk instead of to him. “He says well, you guys are changing the plan,” Coffey recalled, “I said, no Jim, we’ll set up a meeting, go over this with you, we’ll explain everything.” There never was a meeting. Coffey also addressed Landon’s email in a lengthy response at the time, which, incidentally, reveals the ongoing problems with the CAD system even then.)
That committee has met numerous times since 2009. It includes communications specialists from the county and the city. “We do not intend to continue to contribute additional resources to this effort until a new plan has been developed and approved by all parties,” Landon wrote in that email. He did not clarify in the email whether he was referring to the 800 mhz system or to the county’s 911 and CAD system, though the people he cc’d in the email were the members of a committee that was dealing with the CAD system—the one that failed last month—not the 800 mhz system. Landon said Palm Coast would fulfill its remaining obligation to the escrow account “after the new improvement plan is approved.”
The county has never spent any of the money Palm Coast contributed, Coffey said. Even when the county had the opportunity to buy five additional frequencies made available by the Federal Communications Commission, for $14,000—and did—the city refused to allow any of its money to be used, even though it would have benefited from the additional capacity.
Landon’s Nov. 13 email came a week after Kevin Guthrie, who heads the county’s emergency management operations, briefed the county commission on its future 800 mhz needs. That briefing painted a clear picture of a system that was in many regards reaching its “end of life,” and would need to be considerably upgraded or switched over to a new system. Some of those potential costs could run as high as $20 million, though that was all speculation at the time, and no decisions were being made just yet. The briefing was to clue in the commission on future needs.
Exactly two years to the day when Landon sent his email to the county clerk, Bill Reischmann, the Palm Coast city attorney, sent a more detailed email to Al Hadeed, the county attorney. “Unfortunately,” Reischmann wrote, the county has defaulted in its responsibilities and obligations as set forth in the 2009 interlocal agreement.” The city, he said, “hereby demands that the county return the prior three payments that the city has made.”
Reischmann noted in his email that the county was seeking to upgrade the 800 mhz system “in a manner inconsistent with and in violation” of the agreement, citing “an upgrade costing up to $20 million.” In fact, no such upgrade has been approved or even seriously discussed past Guthrie’s general discussion two years ago. Reischmann also pointed to the agreement’s requirement that the city have a voting member in the county’s selection committee when it came to purchasing or contracting for upgrades, something it has not had. But the county states that no such committee has been in place since there is no contract to select—yet.
Reischmann also states that while the agreement calls for joint county and city meetings every five years to review the need for an upgrade, “this has not happened”—again, a statement Coffey disputes, saying the two sides’ communications specialists have been meeting frequently all along.
Coffey responded to Reischmann in an email that went to the city today, though it had circulated among commissioners in draft form since earlier this week. (The county’s public information office issued the series of emails to local media this afternoon.)
“I am unsure who has given you the information in support of your emailed position,” Coffey wrote Reischmann, “but to say the information is partially accurate would be an overstatement.”
Coffey then went on to refute much of the attorney’s email, noting along the way that the county was favoring the city by allowing Palm Coast to be the single-heaviest user of the 800 mhz system, with some 450 end users. “The county sacrificed existing user capacity and gave the city access to a quality radio system with no ongoing system costs and for a minimal capital cost,” Coffey wrote.
He said the city hasn’t had a voting member on a selection committee because the system is still operating efficiently for now and may not need a serious upgrade for another five years, though the county has been acquiring new communications towers and upgrading the backbone along the way. “To date, we have not done anything with phase II expansion,” he wrote (an acknowledgement that may not necessarily serve the county well, in terms of long-range planning, if the recent failures of the CAD and New World systems are any indication of the advisability of pre-planning), with the exception of the acquisition of additional frequencies.
The county, for its part, considers Palm Coast in violation of the agreement. “For many years now” Coffey wrote, “we have simply asked Mr. Landon to honor the Interlocal Agreement and bring the city out of default for its remaining payments of $600,000 or cancel the interlocal agreement through action of the city council.”
Revels seconds that approach. “I would think that the city manager and the county administrator could not do those things administratively,” she said this afternoon. “I’d think there would need to be some affirmative action by the council or the commission, but I don’t know what the agreement says, that’s an attorney’s interpretation.”
The agreement is silent on whether the council or commission must take action.
Coffey did not hide his discomfort—to put it mildly—with the city’s approach. “To say the county has somehow defaulted on a small project, that was never started (nor is required to start yet), based on not having a special five year meeting, is an interesting approach,” he wrote. But he made it clear that if the city bails on the agreement, its employees’ access to the communications system would be limited to first responders alone. “It is our desire to work with, and support, the city,” he wrote in the draft version of the letter. “However we are not supportive of the undercurrent being created by the city manager to form some type of control board over the county commission asset. This would be no different than the county as a major utility user, paying a utility impact fee to join the city’s utility system and somehow now expecting a controlling seat on how the city operated the city-owned utility. I would guess this would be unacceptable to the city, as it should be.”
That “undercurrent” Coffey was referring to has been an ongoing issue between the city and the county, and appears to again be playing a significant role in this issue, though elected officials on either side of the matter have yet to address it in any of their meetings, when they can discuss it freely among themselves at an open meeting, let alone address it with each other, as two governments that profess to make public safety their first priority. The 800 mhz system is at the core of that priority’s functionality.