The Flagler County jail’s surveillance system, including 149 cameras, is not yet seven years old. It’s failing. The Flagler County Commission–the jail’s landlord–is having to replace it for $1.6 million, just months after the county administration told commissioners that it would cost only $500,000.
The commission last summer budgeted the $500,000. Now, because of the miscalculation, it has to go into county reserves for the remaining $1.1 million. That’ll bring the county’s reserves below the critical threshold of 5 percent of the budget, less than five months into the fiscal year.
Some commissioners are not happy.
“The reserve to me is an emergency fund, and this is just a bad planning fund, is what it’s coming out to be,” Commissioner Andy Dance said, with hurricane season nearing.
“Coming up with an additional $1.1 million right after we approve the budget for the year seems to be a terrible way to run the railroad,” Commissioner Dave Sullivan said at a commission meeting Monday evening. “In this case it is bad because our reserves are being depleted quickly, and we’re not halfway through the fiscal year yet.” He added: “We expect the staff to to figure this out ahead of time and not make a $1.1 million problem.”
Notably, the breakdown of the new cost–the itemization of the contract–was not included in the commissioners’ materials, or the material available for public examination.
Commissioner Donald O’Brien said “you don’t want to make excuses,” just before making excuses for the administration–namely, the IT director, saying he was new in the job. Then, admitting to “grandstanding a little bit,” O’Brien said the county had a responsibility to corrections deputies and inmates to make this decision.
No one is disputing that, of course. “I don’t have any objections to the fact that we desperately need the system,” Dance said. But when the commission was first presented with the $1.6 million cost in November, the understanding was that it would be renegotiated, and if the cost couldn’t be lowered, the county would go out to bid again. It did not. Dance wanted to know why.
Rivera put it starkly: “Based on current market conditions,” he said, “I would have no confidence that we would have any better result than what we currently have.” Dance wondered what sort of research led Rivera to that conclusion. Rivera cited “the cost of labor and the cost of all of the components needed for the scope of this system.” The answer was not more precise than that.
“While only being seven years old,” a county memo summarizing the issue to commissioners states, “the initial solution has outlived its usefulness and needs complete replacement.”
The new “solution” entails a replacement of the server, of 149 cameras (with built in capabilities for more), the intercom system, and the door-control system. “You can’t replace one piece without replacing all those pieces. If you take one out, the whole system breaks,” Rivera said. The current system is not only problematic. Every time there’s an issue, it can take four to six weeks for a resolution, because the vendor is Alabama-based. “Our in house IT support will be able to work and repair and maintain the system. Black Creek had agreed to train our personnel. And if there is something that’s outside of our ability to handle, instead of having to wait for someone to come from out of state, they have subcontracted with a company that’s right here in Hollywood, Florida.”
Last summer the commission went through tortuous negotiations with the sheriff to approve the agency’s current budget, and ultimately had to reduce non-law enforcement items to accommodate the sheriff’s increases. The surveillance system is on the county’s side of the ledger. So the $500,000 it approved at the time was in the county budget.
Now, Sullivan said, “we’re going up to $1.6 million, and kind of like: okay, you guys didn’t know anything about that 30 days ago? You had no idea it was going to cost more than 500,000?” While he prevaricated over whether it was anybody’s fault (he kept saying it was nobody’s fault, but also said he wanted someone to take a lie-detector test), he called it “the worst possible way of doing a budget to approve a budget for the coming year–less than 30 days later, say we need another $1.1 million for a system we allocated funds for. If we had known that, at the end of the budget process in October, I think we might have made things a little different.”
Why did the system fail to start with? “We didn’t make great decisions in implementing the security system at the time the jail was built, from all of my research,” Dance said, “and we’re paying the price on a proprietary system and all the other downsides with that, maybe even an antiquated system at the time of installation. We all know that technology needs to be replaced periodically.”
The commission approved building the new jail–strictly speaking, an expansion–in February 2015, for $18 million. The county, not the sheriff (Jim Manfre was the sheriff at the time), oversaw the project, with recommendations from the Sheriff’s Office.
Heidi Petito, the county administrator, said the county had been planning to replace the system, but that costs have been mounting across the board. “Maybe it is poor timing, but our reserves are there for a reason that we tap into them, although it’s not ideal. That’s what they’re there for,” Petito said. “As you recall last year, we had to tap into them to replace fire trucks.” She then subtly turned the tables on the commission, saying it should not only be replenishing the reserves for what it periodically takes out, but increasing the reserves well above the 5 percent threshold.
But that’s a policy decision the commission has resisted, because it’s been more interested in giving the impression that it’s holding the line on taxes, by reducing the tax rate in symbolic increments while, among other things, foregoing such responsibilities are a healthier reserve. Petito said the commission will soon be asked to tap into reserves again for health care costs.
But Sullivan returned to the issue at hand: the sudden difference in projected costs that still seemed unexplained, despite the rationales presented. “If we were in our budget for 2023 to put in $10 million to build a firehouse and less than 30 days later you came back and said, well, that firehouse is now going to cost $30 million, I think there’d be kind of an uproar. We’d say that that’s insane. We can’t do that. So that’s why it got to me. And I think it does talk to the budget process, some.”
For all that, the commission approved the spending unanimously.