By Julie Ann Madden
Union County Commissioners are facing a little heat for their plan to charge municipalities for dispatching services and how they handle their 911 funds.
And that’s an understatement.
For the last year, commissioners have been dealing with South Dakota’s mandate to have all Public Safety Answering Points (PSAPs), which are more commonly known as law enforcement communication centers, consolidated and/or operating with two dispatchers around the clock. By the July 1, 2013 deadline, state officials changed their minds extending the deadline until the “Next Generation” equipment upgrade.
But there is still pressure to consolidate PSAPs and to have each manned by two dispatchers around the clock.
In the meantime, the City of Beresford handled the upcoming mandate by closing its communication center and contracting Union County to provide its dispatching services.
North Sioux City continued its arrangement with Woodbury County whereby all of its Emergency 911 (E911) calls are handled by the Iowa entity. However, some of their non-emergency 911 calls are still handled by Union County.
The cities of Alcester, Elk Point and Jefferson have received both E911 and non-emergency 911 calls from Union County for several years. There has been no charge for non-emergency 911 calls the county handles.
Commissioners considered separating the county’s communications center from the sheriff’s office and/or closing the center and farming out the 911 services. But, they received strong opposition from those entities who use the center.
Then they decided to begin charging all cities in Union County for a portion of the non-emergency 911 calls. The plan is the county would continue to pay all of the emergency 911 calls and half the non-emergency calls with the other half of the non-emergency call costs split by the cities.
The fee was to be based on each entity’s population. Without any data regarding the number of calls the county’s communications center handles, commissioners asked cities to pay between $5 and $10 per person for 2013 services.
The cities’ mayors refused to pay any fees to the county, saying 75 percent would come from the municipalities and only 25 percent from the county.
They want all in Union County to share the increased dispatching costs and suggested the commissioners do a county-wide tax opt-out and form a 911-Dispatch Board with representatives from each entity in the county, including Dakota Dunes and the Sheriff’s Office. This board would manage the 911 funds.
That refusal left the county picking up the whole tab for non-emergency calls during 2013.
This year, the Commission’s goal has been to resolve this issue. They instructed Sheriff Dan Limoges to begin collecting call data and hired Dispatch/Office Manager Judy Oberg as the county’s Director of Communications. Then they learned they cannot charge fees — only the sheriff can.
Therefore, after three months of collecting data, Limoges sent out a letter to each of the cities’ officials, explaining how the charges would be calculated in 2014.
The first quarter 2013 cost for non-emergency 911 calls was $185,685.28; therefore the annual cost, based on first-quarter data, for the cities to split was $61,895.
Using the percentages each municipality had of first-quarter non-emergency 911 calls, the 2014 fees were estimated as:
Elk Point 19,806
North Sioux City 12,988
In April, city officials received these dollar amounts they are expected to pay come Jan. 1.
City officials’ Responses
City officials across the county have been discussing the new fee and some are arguing the county’s plan is unfair and are threatening a referendum vote.
• According to Chief Financial Office Michael Kezar, the Alcester City Council discussed the fees but had no consensus nor took any action on it…“just left it out there.”
• Elk Point City Administrator Dawn Glover sent an email June 19 to Commission Chairperson Doyle Karpen stating the council’s consensus:
1) The City is willing to pay if the cost apportionment is fairly distributed among Union County residents.
2) If this request is not approved by the Union County Commission, the city requests the county to opt out of the State mandate concerning adding two additional staff, regarding the additional dispatchers.
3) If either of these two options are not approved by the County Commissioners, the City believes this matter should be brought to a county-wide vote by either referendum or initiative.
• According to Jefferson Finance Officer Michaeleen Roark, the Jefferson council agrees with Elk Point’s stance. They are also taking it a step further as they are discussing putting in their own system, which would allow them to access information Union County dispatchers now provide their law enforcement and emergency personnel directly from state authorities.
• North Sioux City Mayor Don Fuxa sent a letter dated June 18, stating “While we take no issue with paying our fair share, we do believe the cost apportionment should be fairly distributed amongst all Union County residents. The incorporated cities should not have to bear the full burden of these costs.”
The letter also contained the same three statements as the Elk Point email.
• According to Beresford Mayor Jim Fedderson, his city will continue to contract all dispatch calls with Union County as they did this year.
City officials had operated their own communications center until Jan. 1, said Fedderson, explaining they had four full-time dispatchers and two part-time, which provided one dispatcher on duty at all times. The city’s budget for this was about $230,000 a year for an average of about 300 calls a year. When state officials were planning to mandate two dispatchers on duty at all times, city officials were facing doubling their costs to meet the mandate.
“I’m extremely happy (with our arrangement with Union County),” said Fedderson. “There’s nothing wrong with them taking care of our calls.”
“Is it fair they should take those calls for nothing?” said Fedderson, noting the county handles both E911 and non-emergency 911 calls. “If someone calls in about their neighbor or a barking dog, I have to have someone answer those calls.”
“It’s the city’s responsibility,” he said. “To me, it’s going to cost us some money. It’s only fair.”
“It’s logical Union County would take them,” said Fedderson. “If they don’t, then I have to hire someone 24 hours a day.”
“As far as I’m concerned, we’ve got the best of the program right now,” he said.
North Sioux City officials are seeking E911 Funds from the county because North Sioux City contracts its E911 calls through Woodbury County.
However, all of the E911 dollars go to the State of South Dakota, which remits the county’s share to Union County officials.
At their May 28 meeting, Commissioners weren’t sure if the state sends North Sioux City their E911 monies or if the county owes North Sioux City officials some of the E911 money it’s received.
“We’ve been taken down this road for quite a bit now that we don’t have to remit to North Sioux City,” said Commissioner Ross Jordan, “and now to find out that’s not true is kind of distressing on a lot of levels: 1) We’ve misrepresented the costs to the cities at this point, and 2) We’ve been politically putting our faces out there. This is what we’re going to do, what we have to do, and it’s not correct.”
Since July 1, 2012, all E911 revenues have gone directly to state coffers, said Union County Auditor Carol Klumper, explaining prior to that, the phone companies sent E911 levy revenues to counties.
“Even when the phone companies sent us their information, we have no way of determining whose areas are what,” Klumper told States Attorney Jerry Miller. “They’d say we have so many lines, and this is what we’re keeping and what you’re getting. It would never breakdown these are 232-numbers or 711-numbers so there was never anything ever where Union County sent money to anybody else.”
There were a couple of times when the county remitted some funds to municipalities when there was a question, she added.
There was a map created, especially designating where the North Sioux City and Dakota Dunes’ boundaries are, said Miller.
But as to the county having any control over E911 monies now, it hasn’t had since the state took over, said Klumper.
Miller explained each jurisdiction has to decide which PSAP to contract with. In addition, South Dakota dispatchers have to be state certified.
However, jurisdictions may choose to contract with out-of-state PSAPs which do not require such certification as North Sioux City has done. State officials have decided if out-of-state dispatchers are licensed by their state, they will be “grand fathered” to take South Dakota 911 calls.
“Currently, we are just asking the cities to pay a portion of the total bill of what dispatch costs Union County,” said Miller. “This is a responsibility of the cities, and we’re subsidizing the cities. They are responsible to pay their full share of that dispatch cost.”
“Every time they don’t hire a 24/7 dispatcher, they are getting a benefit,” he said. “Every time they don’t subscribe to a teletype system, they’ve got a benefit. It should be a shared cost.”
The cost formula Commissioners presented to the city officials may change,” said Jordan.
With additional costs of “$20,000 to $30,000 and possibly more if Jefferson officials bail out,” estimated Chairman Doyle Karpen. “If they don’t play, now Beresford, Alcester and Elk Point will have to ante up and if they don’t play and all follow Jefferson’s play, oooooh.”
“We have sole control (of 911 funds) for any city. We are the PSAP,” said Miller, explaining he and Klumper will have to investigate whether money is owed to North Sioux City.
“We’ve never sent out 911 funds,” said Klumper. I don’t know how we would. There is no information given to us of what their share would be.”
“Being wrong is one thing but we’ve been taking this parade down a different route,” said Karpen, “and all of a sudden, you’re going to stop the parade, turn this baby around and take this other parade route.”
“I’d just reiterate the county is, in their calculations, being very generous in asking for a percentage of the proposed increase,” said Miller, adding the ordinance they created is written correctly.
“The whole thing is we were under the understanding we had full control of that money without any buts or ifs,” said Commissioner Milton Ustad. “Now all of a sudden we’re finding we have some buts and ifs.”
“This is back to we make good decisions with good information,” said Karpen, “and we make bad decisions with bad information.”
By this week, Miller told the commission he’d “let them know if there was an error in the state’s retention and distribution of E911 funds and if so to what amount that potentially is.”
“We need to know that answer because if it is we need to give (North Sioux City) money, then our whole plan is probably up in smoke.”
“I believe it is,” said Jordan.
“A lot of smoke,” said Ustad.
The Commission planned to discuss this more in executive session.