Communications Center costs cause stalemate among Union County entities

Posted November 8, 2012 at 6:00 am

by Julie Ann Madden

Union County Commission and mayors had a standoff on how to pay for Communications Center costs at the Oct. 30 Commission meeting.

Currently, the City of Beresford is operating its own communications center and North Sioux City contracts its dispatching services through Woodbury County in Iowa. Recently, Beresford councilors voted to eliminate their communications center, effective Dec. 31, and contract services through Union County.

The towns of Alcester, Elk Point and Jefferson have used the Union County Communications Center services for free as county officials have not charged them.

With pressure from state officials to consolidate communications centers, also known as PSAPs, entities have been looking at ways to do so — especially in light of the fact state legislators mandated two dispatchers on duty at all times and expensive Next Generation equipment upgrades. The latest is that two dispatchers on duty 24/7 will not be mandatory until the Next Generation equipment is mandated.

Commissioners have proposed the cities of Alcester, Elk Point and Jefferson pay a fee for their residents, police and city officials’ calls to the Union County Communications Center. The fee would be based on each entities’ population.

The county’s five municipal mayors and several city officials presented another method of payment to the commissioners last week.

“We want the very best we can get for dispatch,” said Alcester Mayor Peter Larsen, spokesperson for the county’s municipal mayors.

“We also realize not all of us have been paying (for this service)…The method of funding — that’s what we have objections to.”

“It’s based upon a head tax and the majority is coming from municipalities,” he said, adding 75 percent would come from the municipalities and only 25 percent from the county’s General Fund. “We don’t like that. We have other entities out there — Dakota Dunes and county residents not paying anything additional.”

“All we want is fairness across this so that everybody is paying their fair share,” said Larsen, noting it’s past municipalities’ 2013 budget time and the 3 percent CPI maximum is set by the state. “We can’t add any additional projects (to our budgets) without robbing from other sources. Our only option is to each individually do a tax opt out. That’s the only source we have to pay our fair share.”

Instead of the three municipalities doing a tax opt out, the mayors suggested Commissioners do a county-wide tax opt out.

In addition, they requested that a 9-1-1/Dispatch Board be created with representatives from each entity in the county, including Dakota Dunes and the Sheriff’s Office. Then all 9-1-1 monies and dispatch funds, including what the county collects now, be put into one fund and managed by the board.

“This takes the monkey off Commission’s back and puts it back to where the players in the game decide how it’s going to be operated,” said Larsen, adding it would be similar to the county’s Fair Board.

Commission Chairperson Doyle Karpen suggested the towns do their own individual tax opt outs, then they would have control of their monies.

Karpen also refuted that 75 percent would come from the municipalities under the Commission’s method, saying the county/city funding ratio would be 50/50 because the county picks up all 9-1-1 call expenses and one-half of the nonessential call dispatch costs. The remaining half of the nonessential call dispatching costs would be picked up through contracts with whomever uses the services such as the municipalities.

It was explained the county is only responsible for providing 9-1-1 emergency call services throughout the county. It is not responsible for providing dispatchers to answer nonessential calls such as municipal police officers asking for license plate checks or city residents reporting dogs running loose. These nonessential calls are the responsibility of municipalities even though the Union County Communications Center has been providing these services at no charge. Each of the municipalities has the authority to have its own police department and could answer such calls.

Karpen noted a two-week study of incoming calls to the Union County Communications Center revealed the percentage of 9-1-1 and nonessential calls was about equal. So were the entities’ population figures. That is how the commission came up with a “per-head” fee for the municipalities.

“Do you all feel it’s justified to ask non-municipal residents — those living out in the county — to help fund your non-9-1-1 calls,” asked Commissioner Ross Jordan.

“Absolutely,” said Larsen.

The mayors believe all — both county and city residents — should be required to pay an additional fee, not just city residents. Larsen explained they feel the sheriff’s office is just another police department. His territory is the non-municipal county area. Therefore, county residents should have to pay an additional fee just like the Commission is asking city residents to do.

On the other hand, the Commission feels it’s already picking up the tab for county residents’ nonessential calls through its General Fund revenues. Furthermore, the county no longer wants to pay for nonessential call dispatch costs for the municipalities.

“As a county resident, I don’t want to subsidize your city police department,” said Jordan.

However, Larsen responded that with a county-wide tax opt out, all property owners would be paying the same tax.

“We’re looking at providing the best service for all residents,” said Larsen, noting municipal police officers back up the county sheriff’s office.

Noting the state wants to reduce communications centers to just four or six regional centers in the whole state, Karpen said, “I know we can save money. If I can save the county $50,000 to $100,000 a year two years before (state mandates reduction) I can pay for (sheriff’s office salary and employee number increases approved a few minutes before this.”

“An opt out doesn’t solve the issue for 2013,” said Commissioner Milton Ustad.

It was noted a tax opt out can be done at any time, is always subject to a referendum vote of county voters, and actual tax opt out revenues wouldn’t start for another year after it was implemented.

“From the standpoint of the municipalities, which contain most of the population in the county, we as the five mayors support this (county-wide tax opt out),” said Larsen. “We think we can sell this program (to our residents).”

“If you don’t do (our proposal), there is always the possibility if you go through with (yours) and it’s not palatable to the municipalities, it could be referred (to a vote of the people),” he said, adding municipal residents could also do an Initiated Measure for a county-wide tax opt out and set it up the way they wanted “whether (the Commission) liked it or not.”

“If that’s the route you want to go, don’t let us stop you,” said Karpen.

“The only way for the county to avoid a (referendum) election is to do the opt out,” said Larsen. “We’re not objecting to paying. We just want to make sure it’s fair.”

“I think we’re just going to have to agree to disagree,” said Karpen. “(The Commission’s) going to have to review it.”

“It comes down to it’s the sheriff’s issue,” added Karpen. “He’s head of communications for the county. (Then speaking to Sheriff Dan Limoges:) You didn’t want this to be changed. You wanted control so it’s yours.”

“I agree it’s under my authority,” said Limoges. “Judy’s the director and you have to find the money.”

“We gave you the money,” said Karpen, “and you have to operate within your budget. Good luck with that.”

“I will do that for 2013,” said Limoges. “The money’s been budgeted for that. Then it’s up to you to continue funding that, not me. I don’t do that…we’ll be back for 2014 and you can either fund it or not.”

“I believe that’s pretty much what will happen,” said Karpen.

Three of the five mayors verbally supported the mayors’ proposal. In addition to the mayors, there were 10 other city officials present.

Jordan responded no one is challenging paying for the 9-1-1 emergency service calls, it’s the nonessential calls.

“For these additional services the county is not responsible,” said Jordan. “For these additional services that we have been providing for free, we want to stop doing it for free and charge the people who are using them,” said Jordan.

It was noted only one dispatching position can handle the 9-1-1 calls and it takes 4.25 people to cover that position 24/7. Now, the county will have nine dispatchers covering the communications center so that all except North Sioux City’s county and city– nonessential calls and 9-1-1 will be handled. The communications center receives approximately 9,000 calls a year.

States Attorney Jerry Miller used the analogy where if the municipalities had no police forces and the whole county was serviced by the sheriff’s office, then the sheriff would provide just the basic 9-1-1 services that its being taxed for. Anything above that would be “contracted services.” Municipalities and other entities could contract some of these additional services. The sheriff’s cost of providing these additional services would be passed onto the contracting entities as fees. If the county would contract or “farm out” its 9-1-1 services, then the other entities would have to contract additional services through someone else.

A third option, said Miller, was for the county to take a tax opt of the whole $500,000 annually it takes to operate the communications center, appoint a board and donate the current equipment to the board.

“I think this is something that will still be on the table,” said Karpen, noting in 2013, the county will “be swallowing this (cost).”

He warned he wasn’t sure of the quality residents would receive for nonessential calls but the 9-1-1 service would be 100 percent.

“Hopefully this dialogue will continue,” said Karpen. “I have no problem with creating a board. I have no problem with farming it out. The bottom line is pubic safety and if it can be handled in Lincoln County, Pierre or wherever…”

He added in central South Dakota, one communications center handles eight counties’ services.

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