By Julie Ann Madden
Although the Union County Communications Center had overwhelming support to keep it operated locally, the battle is still not won.
Several times since Commissioners reluctantly funded the Communications Center’ budget last fall, they have talked about farming it out and closing it this year.
The biggest contention with the 911 dispatch services the county provides is the municipal non-911 calls the dispatchers handle — the calls city officials refuse to pay for.
As of January, the commissioners have put pressure on Sheriff Dan Limoges to bill the cities for their share of these calls but the cities still refuse to pay. The commissioners have said if the cities don’t pay, then they will take them to Small Claims Court.
However, Limoges has been asking commissioners to consider doing what the mayors asked last year: do a tax opt out to fund the Communications Center.
At 8:45 a.m., Tuesday, March 18, Limoges will formally ask the commissioners to do just that. It is the last chance at a regular meeting for the commissioners to decide on tax opt outs for the matter to be on this June’s Primary Election ballot.
“Closing it and farming it out — I don’t think that’s the answer for Union County,” said Limoges in a phone interview Friday. “Not with all the volume of work that comes through here — all the radio traffic and 911 calls. Bordering Sioux City and with the interstate system running through the county, we need this (Communications Center) facility here.”
“The commissioners have tried to fund it with less and less money,” he said. “They’ve tried to close it up.”
“I don’t think that’s the right answer,” said Limoges. “I hope the public can see that. I think a tax opt out’s the right answer.”
“Let the public decide,” said Limoges. “The commissioners don’t want to fund it so do a tax opt out and fund it properly with a four or five-year tax opt out.”
“At the end of five years we’ll have a new (communications) system the state is working on,” he explained, “and we’ll have a better and clear understanding of the choices and how we want to proceed with it.”
Limoges has been trying to convince the commissioners to do the tax opt out — he needs four of the five commissioners to vote for it.
“I believe the public will support it,” said Limoges. “Take it to the public and the public can vote.”
If the people don’t support it, then the commissioners will decide whether to close it and contract communications center services with another entity outside the county, he said.
“If they farm it out, the county will still spend the money to fund the services,” said Limoges. “It may not be as many dollars (as we’re paying to have it in Union County) but close to it.”
“We’re still going to be paying for it so why not keep the money local,” he said, encouraging Union County residents to contact their commissioners and ask them to support a tax opt out.
Another Tax Opt
That isn’t the only tax opt out the commissioners are considering.
At their Feb. 18 meeting, Union County States Attorney Jerry Miller brought his office’s personnel issues out into the open.
Issues include the workload, staffing and compensation.
Last year the special Compensation Board’s salary report noted the States Attorney’s Office employees were underpaid and understaffed.
With the recent arguments on Welfare Director duties not being resolved, Miller proposed a solution. It included his office taking over the Welfare Director’s duties again.
Miller told commissioners during the last four years, his office has handled an average of 10.25 welfare or indigent files with a 10-year average of 11.25 files.
“The numbers are staying fairly consistent over the years,” said Miller. “We’re doing a level of welfare work that is going to be consistent with us moving past that next U.S. Census date (when the county will have increased its population to the point the county is required to hire a welfare director).”
The file numbers are trending up from six in 2010 to 16 in 2013, he said.
In addition, Miller handled 85 felony files in 2013 compared to 56 in 2012. There were also increases in States Attorney files, from 73 to 111; and in felony probation violation files, from 34 to 50 files. Miller declined to prosecute 24 files in the same time period.
“My average case load is 237 files,” said Miller. “The number of hours I’m spending far exceeds what has been considered even reasonable.”
When he started with the county as a deputy states attorney, there was a 1,950 hour work year. Through negotiations and conversations with Union County Auditor Carol Klumper, Miller said it appears all department heads are on a 2,080 hour work year.
“I figure I far exceed that — even tremendously,” said Miller, adding Deputy States Attorney Alexis Tracy is consistently running at 55 – 60 hours per week.
According to the American Prosecutors Research Institute, several studies show a sole felony prosecutor has an average case load for just felony files of no more than 150 files, said Miller. In some states, they have determined the number is much less: 85.54 was the median number in one study done in 1996.
Tracy has averaged over the past four years 377 misdemeanor files and 66 juvenile files and she declined to prosecute 40 files. Her actual case load for 2013 was 484 files but studies show the appropriate number of files is 300 misdemeanor files.
“In trying to identify where we’re at, why we’re working so many hours and why it is we can’t seem to get it done within the time frame, I think it becomes clear when we start looking at these numbers,” said Miller. “The work load far exceeds the manpower we are able to exert toward it.”
This presentation extremely angered Commission Chairperson Doyle Karpen who questioned why he wasn’t included in communications about it but other commissioners were.
Miller responded he had talked about the welfare director position and workload issues several times with Karpen.
Miller handed out a resolution he had drafted as requested by some of the other commissioners.
The resolution would authorize a second full-time deputy states attorney to assist the commissioners and auditor with indigent matters. The salary with benefits would be $64,332.38 with half of it coming from the county’s Welfare Budget.
Miller also had given them a letter from Attorney General Marty Jackley which said the state office had no money or staff available to assist the county.
Immediately Commissioner Milton Ustad made a motion to have Karpen appoint a two-person committee to meet with the States Attorney’s Office staff to come up with solutions for welfare, workload, staffing, compensation, etc. He also recommended Karpen be one member.
Commissioner Dale Neely seconded the motion, and it passed unanimously by a vote of 4-0 as Commissioner Ross Jordan was absent.
Karpen refused to do the appointments at this time.
“I guess someone has a magic hat we’re going to pull the money out of,” said Karpen. “I recommend if everybody’s for it, let’s do an opt out to increase the State Attorney’s Office.”
“Anyone want to do that? Let’s go for it,” said Karpen angrily, adding when he was met with silence, “You have to do it in a timely fashion. That way we can settle it. We can get it over with. It will all be done.”
“If the public wants to have a larger presence in the State Attorney’s Office, we can go that route,” he said. “We can let the people vote.”
“I think we need to get together, come up with something,” said Ustad.
“One of the reasons our office was approached is the thought of us taking welfare back on,” said Tracy. “With our case load, I don’t think that’s something we can do.”
Individual commissioners were concerned about having to do the court depositions themselves as how this all came about, she said. “I don’t want us to lose sight of that because people are offended or upset…I don’t have the time to (to do welfare justice)…it’s important to work these cases so the county isn’t paying out funds (needlessly).”
Shortly after this, Karpen pushed for the commissioners to approve a hiring freeze so that the only way to get another employee was if an employee left county employment. The other commissioners refused to take action.
At the March 4 meeting, Karpen announced Ustad would be the other commissioner to join him in meeting with Miller and his staff.