Tuesday, October 26, 2021

Sheriff seeks to avoid taking budget hit for unexpected cost overrun

Editor | October 12, 2021 7:00 AM

Sheriff Darren Short urged the Lincoln County Board of Commissioners last week to share the burden of a cost overrun on a major overhaul of local emergency services’ communications systems.

Faced with a dispatch service running on scavenged parts and an outdated records system, law enforcement officials petitioned commissioners in 2019 to fund the project. Although lamenting the cost, commissioners agreed to draw on $848,000 in payment in lieu of taxes funds to pay for the upgrade.

“This is every birthday, Christmas and anniversary for two or three years, at least,” County Commissioner Jerry Bennett (D-2) told Short at the time.

But commissioners learned last month that the final price tag had gone up by a little more than $31,000, bringing it to $879,248. Technicians with Motorola Solutions, which the county partnered with on the overhaul, reengineered a connection between the county’s dispatch center and Libby’s water treatment plant.

Bennett brought up the invoice during the administrative issues portion of a Sept. 15 commissioners meeting. The bill popped up just after he and his colleagues finalized the fiscal year 2022 budget.

Although Short was absent from that discussion, Bennett indicated the money may need to come from the sheriff’s budget. The unexpected bill underscored the need to anticipate expenditures during the budgeting process, he said.

“The fact is, we have to search this stuff out and have it included in budgets,” Bennett said last month.

Short appeared before the board on Oct. 6 to clear the air, he told commissioners. Motorola personnel had concluded as early as April that they could not make the county’s existing, ad hoc solution to the communications problem work with the upgrades, he said. Instead, they went ahead with a fix. The resulting invoice did not arrive until September, Short said.

“I don’t know why the invoice was so delayed,” Short told the commissioners. “[It came] well after our budget was put together. It was just an unforeseen expense.”

County Commissioner Brent Teske (D-1), who has previously worked in local law enforcement and served as the county’s emergency management chief, asked whether the new link worked. When the cost overrun emerged last month, he said the problem was longstanding and well known.

“This thing has been a mess,” Teske said after Short confirmed the hookup’s functionality. “I think what took Jerry by surprise was that wasn’t initially included [in the project].”

Bennett was absent from the Oct. 6 board meeting.

County Commissioner Josh Letcher (D-3) pressed Short on whether Motorola’s personnel were aware of the problem. Short told Letcher that workers with the multinational company initially thought they could incorporate the county’s fix into the overall project.

Agreeing that the overrun was a bitter pill, Short lobbied the commissioners to spread the cost around rather than draw solely from his agency’s budget. While the sheriff’s office has served as the face of the project, the overhaul benefited government communications across the county, including other emergency services.

“I don’t feel that it’s fair that we have to try to absorb it through our budget since it’s used for all county communications,” Short said.

Teske told the sheriff that other funding options, including returning the payment-in-lieu of taxes dollars, were potentially available. He emphasized that the problem lay in the surprise more than the dollar amount.

“The big issue is just that cost not being projected,” Teske said.

Short agreed and lightly chided the commissioners for discussing the overrun without him present. An article regarding the unexpected price hike ran in the Sept. 21 edition of The Western News.

“I agree, it is a surprise cost nobody ever anticipated,” Short said. “It would have been nice to be able to come up here and explain it instead of people calling me about an article in the paper.”

Letcher criticized Motorola’s lack of foresight as well.

“I’m just a little bummed at Motorola,” he said. “$850,000 and they didn’t catch something like this.”