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June 29, 2011

County to start over on radio bids

LOCKPORT — Niagara County will solicit bids for a needed emergency communication system upgrade, after complaints from two vendors about the county’s procurement process to date.

The legislature’s community safety and security committee voted Tuesday to direct the L.R. Kimball firm, the county's narrowbanding project manager, to draft a Request For Proposals in consultation with local first responders. The RFP will spell out the county's public radio coverage needs and invite any and all interested vendors to propose an upgrade project. The county’s obligation, by law, is to then hire the lowest responsible bidder or reject all bids as insufficient.

The county has been negotiating with two radio system vendors, Motorola Solutions and Harris Corporation/RF Communications Division, for their “best” offers since last fall.

Earlier this month the CSS committee appeared poised to recommend a $15 million upgrade by Motorola, until Harris Corp. made a last-second pitch for a $12 million upgrade. The committee voted to recommend the Harris proposal.

Within days of its recommendation, however, executives of Motorola and apparent third bidder Kenwood U.S.A. Corporation fired off letters to County Manager Jeff Glatz complaining their companies were mistreated by the county.

County Attorney Claude Joerg read aloud the Kenwood executive’s complaint to the CSS committee Tuesday. It alleges Kenwood representatives gave verbal and written proposals to John Cecula, county fire coordinator/interim director of emergency services, in February and May of this year, and that Cecula never passed along the proposals to the committee. The county’s conduct as it fielded offers was “not professional,” the executive wrote.

The Kenwood complaint arrived within a few days of a June 16 letter by a Motorola executive charging the county had held Motorola and Harris to different standards in negotiations for a system design — and alleging the county had divulged Motorola proprietary information to Harris designers along the way.

Adding to the swirl of unseemliness, when the CSS committee met last week to discuss postponing a legislative vote to hire Harris Corp., retired county emergency services director Jim Volkosh showed up, with a Motorola representative in tow, to extol Motorola and denounce aspects of the Harris design.

Fire service volunteers, who already use Motorola radios, have expressed a clear preference for Motorola product to legislators over the past few weeks. Indeed, when the CSS committee voted Tuesday to scrap the existing proposals, including Harris’, and start the procurement process over by RFP, a couple dozen first responders in the audience applauded.

The committee agreed to go to the RFP process on Joerg’s recommendation, to avoid potential litigation by jilted vendors.

CSS Chairman Paul Wojtaszek, R-North Tonawanda, agreed that’s the best course of action now, but said he’s upset to hear complaints about the Harris proposal only after the committee agreed to go with it. Cecula, the fire coordinator, is a committee member and did not at the time voice any of the technical concerns about Harris that are being echoed by first responders now. Only after the committee’s vote did the “rumors and accusations” begin surfacing, Wojtaszek said.

As for the Kenwood complaint that forced the decision to go to an RFP, alleged mishandling of its offer by Cecula, it’s being looked at now, Glatz said. Cecula was off duty last week and couldn’t be asked.

“There’s two sides to every story,” Glatz said. “I need to verify some things before I make any other comment.”

Upgrade of the county’s emergency communication system is driven by a Federal Communications Commission narrowbanding mandate, to free up space on the spectrum for more users at a time. FCC set a deadline of Jan. 1, 2013, for all municipalities to get their radio systems off the wide band onto the narrow band, under threat of stiff fines. The county also has to achieve “interoperability” of radios among different responder agencies including fire, police and public works.

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