Updated Monday, December 31, 2012 at 12:31 AM
TACOMA — An internal review of a statewide agency charged with improving 911 service has concluded the office at Camp Murray wasted $700,000 on a now canceled technology project that involved three years of work.
Internal and external reviews of the effort call attention to apparent ethical lapses surrounding the project, as well as inattentive management and poor project oversight, The News Tribune reported in Sunday's newspaper.
At the center of the effort was a purchase from a company called SAS — a purchase that managed to evade both an examination of its effectiveness and a competitive search for the right equipment.
Early concerns about those omissions helped push the unit's leader out and raised questions about oversight by his bosses in the state Military Department.
"The SAS experience is instructive in that it reveals how inattentive upper management and a failure to vet and structure an initiative can lead to poor project management and affect the stewardship of public funds," Jim Mullen, who oversees the unit as director of the department's Emergency Management Division, wrote in an internal review this year.
Reports from the review and a separate 2010-2011 investigation by an outside consultant, both obtained by The News Tribune through public-records requests, call attention to apparent ethical lapses surrounding the project.
The outside consultant alleged that ethically questionable relationships with contractors extended beyond SAS.
Twenty-five cents out of every monthly cell and landline phone bill in Washington goes to the obscure state office at Camp Murray, just outside Lakewood in Pierce County, which is charged with improving 911 service around the state.
The Military Department says that the exits of several key officials from the unit have brought change and that new safeguards will prevent money from being wasted on ill-conceived technology projects in the future.
Counties have their own local, 70-cent monthly tax on phone lines to fund their 911 call centers.
If they need more money for improvements, they often tap into the tax revenue from the state's 25 cents, which brings in more than $23 million a year. Small counties, especially, rely on the state fund.
The state 911 unit approves the purchases. Counties file requests for state reimbursements along with monthly reports on the volume of 911 calls by emailing spreadsheets to officials in the unit.
The unit is responsible for consolidating data from those spreadsheets into a single central spreadsheet and passing information back and forth with counties by email each month.
It would be simpler and more efficient, officials have long thought, if there were a single central online database that state and county officials could all update.
A program manager in the unit recommended a possible solution after a conference of 911 officials in 2008: SAS. But they didn't consider other companies or go out to bid, in part because they learned another state department already had a standing agreement with SAS.
But the department review found the needs of the two departments were different and that a competitive process could have saved the state money and aggravation.
Robert Ezelle, who became head of 911 after the contract with SAS began, did an analysis that found the ongoing costs, including future programming expenses, of working with the technology outweighed the benefits.
Mullen pulled the plug late last year. Through January of this year, including staff time and maintenance, costs had ballooned to $709,048.
SAS spokesman Trent Smith said his company "did its best to make the E911 budget planning project a success for Washington. We met the project objectives, including the launch of a pilot project. We regret the project ended before full implementation."
The manual work of updating spreadsheets continues. Ezelle said it's a smoother process now thanks to better coordination and training, but it's still a significant portion of one employee's duties, with others contributing.
Mullen has taken other steps to improve the office's accountability.
The 911 office used to run somewhat independently from the rest of Emergency Management, Mullen's review said. He has taken steps to rein in that independence, merging the unit with a Homeland Security unit that deals with federal grant funding, under control of that unit's manager, Ezelle.
It even has a new physical location in a different Camp Murray building. Leaders say it is a different place now in more ways than one.
"I take our ethical responsibilities to the state and to our citizens extremely seriously, and just communicated very, very strongly to the staff what our parameters are and (that) we will behave in an ethical manner," Ezelle said. "The staff has clearly taken that to heart."