The public comment call-in system developed for the Alachua County Board of County Commissioner (BOCC) as a response to the COVID-19 pandemic is under scrutiny for its excessive cost.
Board members and county staff discussed the topic at a special meeting Tuesday and agreed to look for alternative ways to continue to facilitate engagement with the public but not at the current price range from $136 to $266 per call.
Mark Sexton, communications and legislative affairs director for Alachua County, presented the fiscal impact of the public call-in system provided by technology firm Kearns & West.
Sexton said the county fielded 480 calls since February at a cost of $78,500. He went further by breaking down the cost per call as $163 on average for each citizen call.
Now that the pandemic has settled down, the public comments are waning. Sexton said the county spent $8,000 in September for a total of 30 phone calls answered, which translates to $266 for every caller.
Sexton gave kudos to the staff of Kearns & West for their service and for coming up with a solution to the "clunky" system used for call-in comments at the beginning of the pandemic but suggested the company needs a business model adjustment to bring costs down. He noted an inconsistency in hourly wages for Kearns & West staff and said a charge by service would be more consistent.
Sexton also told the BOCC that the county has been part of a beta test with Zoom, which has a backstage product that would be included on the county's Zoom package deal and might solve the problem.
Sexton reported that the county spent $78,000 in six months with Kearns & West, but the total Zoom contract is $16,000 a year.
BOCC members agreed the cost seemed too high.
"We want to offer the public a way to participate remotely, but the cost is really astronomical to provide that," Commissioner Mary Alford said.
She suggested the county find another way to offer a remote service or return to the original service.
"Maybe it is clunky, but we could put up with it in order to provide that [service]," she said. Alford added that some callers have been using the system to put their own agenda forward and suggested the county look at limiting the total number of minutes allowed to comment.
Commissioner Anna Prizzia agreed the numbers represented an "astronomical cost" and added that the "service provided price is out of the ballpark of what we want to be spending."
Commissioner Charles Chestnut, noting the drop-off in participation, said the cost is no longer justified.
"Those passionate about an issue will come here to speak," he said, adding that the BOCC would need a better reason when spending taxpayer dollars and the cost is very expensive at $266 per call. He agreed with looking for a better package deal number and discussing the topic again.
"If participation continues to fall and people aren't excited about it, we could do without it," he said.
County Manager Michele Lieberman said the discussion will continue in January.
"We're not here to discuss how to limit community access to board and staff," she said. "This is how to provide the access and in what manner... Your policies may dictate the how."
BOCC Chair Ken Cornell said when the pandemic hit in March 2020, the board had to flex and create a new process.
"Technology helped us participate in meetings and also the public," he said. "Through that we learned a lot of helpful things when it comes to the public's participation."
Cornell expressed interest in looking at how other counties are now handling public comment effectively.
"I'm in tune to the hard cost and soft cost on the staff," he said about the current call-in system. "Anything we're spending on calls, we're not spending somewhere else. That doesn't sit well with me."