By Nancy Smith
Want an unvarnished look at your Legislature in action? Revisit the saga of the $7 million police radios no law enforcement agency asked for but will get anyway.
These are the radios, remember, that were cut out of the budget last week when the Senate wouldn’t sign off on them. But guess what? The House found a way to get them in the budget anyway.
The night of March 7, in what was the last late-night meeting on this year’s state spending plan, Tom Lee, R-Brandon, appropriations chief from the Senate and Richard Corcoran, R-Land O’ Lakes, appropriations chief from the House made a deal, granting their chambers another $123.1 million for pet projects that can go back in the budget.
It’s nothing new. These projects are known as “sprinkles.” “Don’t be naive, Nancy,” a lobbyist told me, “this is how sausage is made.”
Sorry, folks, this sausage is rotten. It should be sent back to the kitchen and scratched off the menu.
To repeat, we’re talking about $7 million for radios no one wants. $7 million. Think of the agencies left begging, agencies and programs that would clamor for half the radios appropriation.
It’s all about two things: 1) vendor Harris Corp. of Melbourne positioning itself to renew one of the most lucrative contracts in state government by cutting out competitive bids; and 2) powerful House leaders taking care of a very large constituent (Harris) and reaping rewards for it: specifically, Speaker Steve Crisafulli, who lives in Meritt Island, just across the bridge from Harris; and Ritch Workman, chair of House Rules, Calendar & Ethics (Ethics? ), who comes from Melbourne.
Workman put in the $7 million budget detail request, but Harris’ Washington, D.C. lobbyist Glen Grab is identified on the form as the requestor.
Oh, yes, and last November Harris popped $20,000 into Crisafulli’s committee account, Growing a Sustainable Future; then $10 into Workman’s Citizens United for Liberty and Freedom.
Crisafulli gave this statement Monday to Peter Schorsch of FloridaPolitics.com:
“DMS has identified over 6,000 state law enforcement radios that need to be replaced now. So far, the House hasn’t been successful in obtaining $7 million to replace radios. … My hope is to secure these funds before the budget is completely finished because the state has an obligation to provide the tools our officers need to be safe.”
Now, I have always been a Crisafulli fan and will remain so, in spite of this issue. But the speaker is confusing a phrase known as “end of life” with a need for new radios. The Joint Task Force preparing for a competitive bid knows the radios are “end of life.” That’s why the state has spent $2 million to begin upgrading the system — yes, $2 million of taxpayers’ money spent so far to get this $500-million-plus project bid out properly. But here’s the rub: The radios the users have are working, and if they weren’t, the agencies would have requested money this year to buy new ones. They did not.
Previously, the state Division of Forestry asked for radios in their budget request — $600,000, and they were funded. The new radios are part of a different system, not the Statewide Law Enforcement Radio System (SLERS), but actual experience pokes a hole in the speaker’s argument that first responders on the SLERS system “need” radios, even though they didn’t ask for them.
Harris manages the current SLERS system. It uses an outdated technology (analog) called EDACS. The new system will be P25 (digital). Harris radios to be purchased using the $7 million are P25, but can also work on the current EDACS system. [Flagler County is facing related issues as its radio system nears its “end of life” in 2017. Its vendor, too, is Harris.]
Make no mistake, they won’t come equipped with the bells and whistles they might have if they were “competitively procured.”
At the end of the day, the police radios issue is about public safety. It’s about the people of Florida trusting their state government to get the best equipment for its officers. It does all of the officers a disservice to circumvent the will of the agencies and even the entire Legislature.
Seeing what happened here, you have to feel sorry for Floridians who live in districts not represented by powerful leaders.
Nancy Smith is the editor of Sunshine State News. She started her career at the Daily Mirror and The Observer in London before spending 28 years at The Stuart News/Port St. Lucie News as managing editor and associate editor. She was president of the Florida Society of Newspaper Editors in the mid-1990s. Reach her by email here, or follow her on twitter at @NancyLBSmith.