By Julie Ann Madden
On Aug. 6, Union County Commissioners took a final cut of the Union County Communications Center’s proposed 2014 budget, which just may cause the center’s closing and dispatching services farmed out to an entity outside the county.
For the past year, Commissioners have been making changes to the Communications Center, which has nine dispatchers handling 911 and non-emergency calls from law enforcement agencies, fire departments, emergency services (ambulance) personnel, and citizens in need of assistance.
From separating the Communications Center’s finances from the rest of the sheriff’s department and county jail budgets to requesting cities using the county’s dispatching services begin paying a share of the costs, it’s been one change after another.
All along the commissioners have received strong opposition from emergency services organizations, and city officials have refused to pay, citing unfairness between county residents’ and city residents’ proposed fees.
At the beginning of this Commissioners’ Aug. 6 meeting, Secretary/Finance Officer Tracy Smith, on behalf of Sheriff Dan Limoges who was unable to attend this meeting, requested $71,000 be moved from the Communications Center’s proposed 2014 budget to the Sheriff’s Department budget because at least two dispatchers will be needed to continue doing sheriff’s office work. The commission verbally agreed to do so.
Then Union County’s municipal mayors and councilors reiterated their position — that they won’t pay the proposed communications center charges unless all residents in the county split the cost equally.
Commissioner Marvin Schempp left the meeting at noon, leaving the remaining four commissioners to finalize the county’s 2014 Provisional Budget.
Commissioner Ross Jordan led the final cuts by telling fellow commissioners he cut $29,000 in overtime pay out of the Communications Center’s 2014 budget because “with nine dispatchers there shouldn’t be any overtime.”
Commissioners had earlier reduced Limoges’ original 2014 budget request of $472,193 by reducing two line items: Utilities from $31,000 to $22,000 and cutting Furniture/Minor Equipment from $5,000 to $2,500.
The changes reduced the Communications Center’s budget to $410,971 — which was still a slight increase from the $405,311 budgeted for this year.
With this meeting being the last for county officials to meet publications requirements for the 2014 Provisional Budget, Jordan suggested reducing the budget even further — setting the whole Communications Center budget at $265,000, which is the amount an outside dispatching service has quoted the Commission for providing all Union County dispatching services.
“(The sheriff) either has to make it work or he has to go contract outside the county,” said Jordan. “That’s my recommendation. I don’t see how I can turn away and not tell the citizens I’m going to save $180,000.”
Commission Chairperson Doyle Karpen agreed with Jordan but noted there would be some “first-time” costs for outsourcing dispatching services.
Jordan suggested putting the $180,000 in the county’s Contingency Fund in case the sheriff couldn’t make it.
Union County Auditor Carol Klumper explained only 5 percent of the county’s projected revenue could be put in the Contingency Fund. Five percent was $596,351 and the commission had already earmarked $482,732 so they only had another $120,000 they could put in this fund. In addition, if the Communications Center budget was cut to $265,000, then the five percent would be less.
Karpen suggested maxing the Contingency Fund at $550,000 which would only allow $68,000 for the Communications Center.
“We’ll have to rob Contingency pretty hard if we reverse this decision,” said Karpen, “because we can’t go to the whole $180,000 we’ll take out.”
Commissioner Milton Ustad countered Jordan’s recommendation, suggesting cutting one full-time dispatching position, which costs approximately $37,000 and would leave the Communications Center budget at $374,000.
“That’s still a long way from $265,000,” said Karpen.
“I don’t know how we look at saving $180,000 to the county and not take a hard, serious run at it,” said Jordan. “We have a hard offer at $265,000.”
“The thing about it is everybody’s about ‘Next Gen,’” said Jordan. “I can’t see why we’d keep throwing money at a center that, based on what they’re telling us, is going to close any way. So, we can save $180,000 and they close these local centers for regional centers. If we keep spending the money, we spend it for nothing.”
“We can get ahead of the curve,” said Karpen.
“Why not get on board now?” said Jordan. “You have cities who aren’t willing to help pay for dispatch services. With this deal, they’ll take the cities, too. So, we’re contracted. They get the same service for $265,000.”
“I’m looking at Beresford,” said Ustad. “They came down here thinking we would be here.”
“Our earlier discussion was if it was under $100,000 (savings), it wouldn’t be worth it,” said Jordan. “Beresford’s going to save themselves $20,000 a year alone with the move because we won’t be charging anybody.”
“I think it’s worth a little bit of something to keep it here,” said Ustad.
“For what purpose?” asked Jordan. “Just to have it here? It’s just a flick of a switch. So they aren’t talking to a person here — they’re talking to a person somewhere else.”
“I don’t think they’ll take it that way,” said Ustad.
“Believe me, those mayors are going to want to come back and see us if we make this move,” said Jordan, “but I don’t see how we walk away from that kind of savings to the county. I have a hard time keeping throwing money into this pit and nobody wants to pitch in. They all want a free ride.”
“They’d get the free ride,” said Karpen, noting the sheriff’s proposed Communications Center budget included about $65,000 in revenue city officials refuse to pay.
There would be no communications center in Union County — two dispatching positions which do warrant work would be moved to the sheriff’s department. The other seven positions would be eliminated.
“Do we continue to fund this pit and it keeps growing,” said Jordan, “or do we find a way out and save the residents money?”
“We give (the sheriff) ‘X’ amount of money and he makes it fly,” said Karpen.
“Take the concept all the mayors had this morning,” said Jordan. “We all pay for this service and shouldn’t pay any extra. Then it does make sense for us to take our money and have somebody else do the service for cheaper than we can do it ourselves.”
“It goes right in line with what they presented to us today as far as I’m concerned,” said Jordan. “Here is a place saying they will take all our dispatch for one fee. I don’t know how they can argue with that. Frankly if I could pay a couple bucks less in taxes, I’d be thrilled.”
“A tie vote won’t work today,” Karpen reminded them and called for a five-minute break for them to “ponder it.” After which, Jordan, Karpen and Neely verbally agreed to make the budget cut.
After clarifying a few loose ends in the Provisional Budget, Jordan made the motion to “approve it as amended.” Neely seconded it and the vote was 3-1 with Ustad dissenting.
The commissioners set a public hearing on the 2014 Provisional Budget for 10:15 a.m., Tuesday, Sept. 3. They set 30 minutes to allow the public to share comments or concerns on the proposed 2014 Budget.
Then they changed the meeting for the final vote on the 2014 Budget to Thursday, Sept. 19. This way all five commissioners will be present.
According to Klumper, as of June 30, the Communications Center’s 2013 budget only had $172,301 of its $405,311 left — less than half to fund the last half of this year.