Oregon state police fumbles emergency radio network, costs misrepresented to lawmakers by over $150 million

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A much needed emergency communications project, directly under the supervision of Oregon Gov. Ted Kulongoski, is reportedly two years behind schedule and more than $150 million over budget due to optimistic and purposely misleading information that managers provided legislators, in order to maintain support for the project’s outsized budget.

Thus far only $24 million has been spent, but the project’s costs have risen from the original estimate of $414 million to nearly $600 million, and state officials aren’t even sure if that’s a realistic figure. One of the largest construction and technology projects ever managed by the state, the state officials now believe that they were sold a bill of goods by project management who were in over their heads from the start.

Oregon lawmakers feel misled over the emergency radio network known as OWIN. Costs are now estimated to be more than $150 million more than they agreed to in 2007.

An investigative report published by The Oregonian details the seemingly fabricated estimates, lack of cost documentation, overly optimistic expectations, and lack of attention to planning on a complex system that’s long overdue for replacement.

A new system is needed to replace one that’s antiquated, preventing safety employees in different departments from communicating with each other. Existing equipment is so old and constantly breaking down that state workers regularly turn to eBay seeking replacement parts that distributors don’t even carry.

The proposed system, which includes a network of 300 microwave radio tower throughout the state, is called the Oregon Wireless Interoperability Network, or OWIN, for short. The objective is to put all public safety agencies on a single radio network so that they are able to communicate during emergencies. The present network requires safety workers carry several radios with them so that they can communicate with other departments when the need arises.

A new network had been hold for years simply due to cost projections. In 2007, the then-estimate for the system was $665 million, an amount that lawmakers turned down as being far too expensive.

In order to make the network a reality, in Nov. 2007, Gov. Kulongoski turned to former Oregon state trooper Lindsay Ball, a state employee with a reputation of being a successful administrator, to be the point person on the project and get it done for an acceptable price.

Ball had previously run the state’s Department of Fish and Wildlife and was credited with turning around the troubled department. From there, he was promoted to run the state’s department of Administrative Services in 2006.The project would be managed through the State Police Department, although Ball would report directly to the governor

By Sep. 2008, Ball had managed to convinced legislators to begin funding for the project, largely based on his representations that he was able to reduce total project costs down to $414 million. The alleged manner in which Ball was able to make over $250 million disappear from the budget included signing up local agencies to share in the cost, use state employees to handle a large portion of the work, redesign the network with fewer towers and less expensive radios and obtaining grants from the federal government.

At least that’s what was represented to lawmakers at the time, in order for them to give Ball the go-ahead on the project.

Two years later sources, including state auditors, say that most of the information provided to lawmakers was optimistic or purposely misleading estimates,  and that supporting documentation was either never prepared, or cannot be located. Significant savings from the original $665 million cost estimate, such as $77 million in operating cost for the completed system, were simply left out of the revised system costs.

In fact, most of the scheduled savings have not materialized, making the $414 cost estimate little more than a sham to get lawmakers to pull the trigger on starting to build the system. Earlier this year, management of the system was taken from the state police, and handed off to Oregon’s Department of Transportation. On Aug.1, Lindsay Ball retired.

Over the last several months, employees in ODOT have been unable to verify any of the claimed cost savings and say that the true cost of the system is roughly what had been estimated several years ago. Repeated requests to the state police department by The Oregonian for documentation of the claimed cost savings have not been addressed.

In order to get the project moving along on a faster track before the state legislature meets in January, project officials have now hired at least a dozen private consultants at a cost of up to $300,000 each per year, something they said they would never do at the project’s outset.

“It’s by far — by far — the most egregious case of the Legislature being misled by a state agency that I’ve ever seen,” said Sen. Betsy Johnson, D-Scappoose, who has watched the project for years.

Incoming Gov. John Kitzhaber is now faced with realistic estimates that the final cost will exceed amounts previously unacceptable to lawmakers, in an environment in which lawmakers are struggling to close a projected budget gap of $3.5 billion. Kitzhaber will have to make a tough decision on whether to scrap the out-of-control project, or move forward, hoping for the best.

The Oregonian

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