Palm Coast City Manager Jim Landon Tuesday responded publicly to last week’s revelation by the county that the city is shirking its financial obligation to Flagler’s emergency communications system. But he did so without addressing the financial disagreement, and by conflating the county’s ongoing computer problems with potential problems ahead for the communications system—a linkage that the county vehemently rejects and considers inaccurate.
At the heart of the matter is the county-wide system of communications towers and its so-called 800 mhz system, a system the county runs and that all local agencies, including the county fire department, ambulances, the sheriff’s office and Palm Coast employees and firefighters, use to communicate together. The county pays for the system and its upkeep. In 2009, the county and Palm Coast signed a joint agreement enabling all Palm Coast employees to use it, at no cost to the city, but also calling on Palm Coast to contribute $1.5 million to an escrow account, for future expansion of the system.
Palm Coast is $600,000 in arrears. Since no such expansion is planned, Landon two years ago, without city council direction, ordered the city to stop making payments. The city attorney in an email to the county attorney earlier this month reiterated Palm Coast’s intention not only not to pay the $600,000, but to withdraw from the joint agreement—again, without direction from the city council. That provoked a strong-worded written response from County Administrator Craig Coffey to Landon last week in which Coffey said Landon was getting his facts wrong, and that if the agreement were to be ended, the council would have to formally weigh in.
None of the council members brought up the issue today during a workshop that lasted all moring and part of the afternoon. At the end of that meeting, Landon did.
“It’s a very serious matter to me and one that I’m losing sleep over right now,” Landon told the council. But he did not discuss his attorney’s letter nor his decision to end the agreement. Rather, he said—as Coffey had suggested—the council should get in on the discussion. But before doing so, he connected the county’s problems with the computer-assisted dispatching system that the 911 operators use with the 800 mhz system, suggesting that if one failed—as it did in October, the other could, too: “A couple of years ago I was invited to a meeting about the CAD system, you heard about the automated computer dispatch system,” Landon said. “The experts, both city and county, basically said that we were headed for hard times, and potentially a disaster with that system, and that it wasn’t being maintained, utilized at an efficient level. A couple of years later it crashes, almost like someone predicted. I’m being told by county and city people that our 800 mhz system, we need to take a serious hard look at it, together, cooperatively, and figure out what the future for that is.”
“I don’t want your words to go cause a strong presentation to go negative,” a council member tells the city manager.
What Landon did not tell the council was that the meeting he attended, in 2013, took place before the county took over the sheriff’s CAD system, and that the issues involved at the time had to do with disputes between the sheriff and its CAD vendor. The county subsequently took over management of the CAD system, and discovered a slew of problems that had festered because of lack of investment and upkeep going back to the previous sheriff, even though the county administrator himself also took responsibility for failures that took place since.
But at no point were the CAD issues affecting the 800 mhz system. Nor could they.
“The two are connected in the sense that first responders use both system, but they’re not connected where if one is bad it’s going to take down the other,” Coffey said. He was critical of Landon “clouding” the two issues in the council’s mind, and making it seem as if the county were not properly maintaining the 800 mhz system: the county spends $250,000 a year on a maintenance contract. (There is an “end of life” issue ahead for the system’s contract as it is, but it’s not going to affect the operability of the system, which is due for a gradual migration to an alternate, less proprietary technology.)
Landon told the council that his and Sheriff Jim Manfre’s administration have been working on a plan for the 800 mhz system, which they will submit to the county in hopes of starting discussions about the system’s future.
“We need to sit down and figure out how we’re going to work together on giving us all a comfort level, not have one group tell another group that this is what we’re going to do, that’s not what we’re going to do,” Landon said. “Our communications system may be another one where elected officials, elected bodies all need to be on the same page, to make sure we’re all headed in the same direction, because right now, you’ve seen, we’re pointing fingers, and that doesn’t get us where we need to be.”
But council members Jason DeLorenzo and Steven Nobile, while not addressing the 800 mhz system, were concerned about the tenor of discussions.
“This community does some really good work as a community with EMS,” DeLorenzo said, referring to an earlier discussion at the same meeting about the city’s and county’s joint ambulance operations. “That system that runs with it, that’s a lot of agencies running through the system, and we all work together. On the ground, everything is working together, OK, so let’s not forget that, it’s a big, important system, and yes, we should be all talking together because we’re all involved with it, absolutely, but I don’t want your words to go cause a strong presentation to go negative.”
DeLorenzo also stressed that “the big users” of the system “need to be involved—I’m not saying the big uses need to take over, but we need to be involved in the discussion.”
Nobile said those discussions should start with the council then make their way to the administration, not the other way around. “It seems to me that when we get to this level of issues with EMS, now with the 800 system, it really should flow up to the top, so we can make decisions and give direction, before the city manager tries to sit down with the county,” Nobile said, “so he’s got direction from us as to where we want to go. He should have direction, the county manager should have direction, instead of trying to get into conversation which then needs to come back this way.” Nobile said he was opposed to “administration to administration discussion that doesn’t go anywhere, because there’s no one saying, this is where we need to go.”
“Absolutely, so this is one that I need your help, I guess is what I’m saying,” Landon said. “This isn’t just city manager-county administrator. This is elected bodies also getting together and figuring out how we’re going to work together.”
It’s not clear when those discussions will take place. On Dec. 7, the county commission will be discussion emergency responders, but the discussion will be focused on the county’s EMS system and how it works with the city’s, in a sort of rejoinder to today’s ERS discussion at the Palm Coast council, which, Coffey said, included numerous inaccuracies about the system.