Springfield, county could share 911 dispatch center

Talks have progressed, but questions remain about money and structure.

Formal talks between Springfield and Clark County leaders about a new shared 911 dispatch center are now focusing on how to do it and if they have the money to pay for it.

Clark County and the city spend more than $1.2 million each on separate dispatch centers and are questioning whether pooling money spent on operations throughout the area would pay for a combined 911 operation and potentially save taxpayer dollars.

“We’re already saving the townships thousands of dollars by doing this. I can’t help but think it isn’t going to save money. It almost has to,” Clark County Sheriff Gene Kelly said.

The city and county already share a jail, gun range, training room and other services. The sheriff’s office also provides dispatch service for about 10 of 16 townships and villages.

Discussion about a combined dispatch center over the last decade stalled due in part to financial concerns and disagreements on structure and operational details, some officials said.

Area leaders now speculate that a drafted plan could be in place in three or four months and that a center could be established by 2014.

Officials began exploring the idea again this year after the city purchased the former Downs Army Reserve Center at 1515 W. High St., now known as the Safety Services Center, and after county agencies upgraded their communications system.

“That pushed it to the top of the agenda,” Mayor Warren Copeland said of the purchase of the safety center. “The two big users — the county and the city — the two big providers thought it made sense.”

Clark County Commissioner Rick Lohnes and Springfield City Manager Jim Bodenmiller said a combined center could eliminate duplication of services and improve responses to 911 calls.

Lohnes said dispatch services throughout the county can be improved as cell phone calls to 911 sometimes need to be transferred between city and county dispatchers, and calls that go to certain townships are answered by people working from home.

“The No. 1 goal is to improve the efficiency and the speed and accuracy of dispatching. And No. 2, consolidation should not cost us more money,” Lohnes said.

Bodenmiller said there seems to be broad support for a combined dispatch center, but no decisions have been made on the structure of the operation or the location of the center.

“As far as I know, everybody’s on board and that’s encouraging, but we still have a lot of decisions to make,” Bodenmiller said.

Officials have sought information about establishing a unified communications system from leaders in Champaign and Miami counties, which were among the first in the state to establish combined dispatch centers.

Leaders in both Miami and Champaign counties say a unified dispatch center saves money and improves service. But they said Clark County may face challenges in establishing a structure all entities can agree to and financing the operation.

Miami County’s communication center, established in 1989, now costs about $2.7 million annually to operate and is funded through the sales tax, which was increased by 0.25 percent in 2009 to fund upgrades to the countywide dispatch center.

Jeff Busch, director of the Miami County Communication Center, reports to a board of directors and is an employed by the county.

He would advise counties to establish a permanent revenue source instead of a price per dispatch center.

“The funding mechanism is the biggest hurdle,” Busch said. “In my opinion, I think there needs to be a permanent way to fund the center whether its a countywide sales tax or property tax.”

Champaign County’s dispatch center, which opened in 2006, costs more than $800,000 per year to operate.

It’s funded with a 1-mill permanent levy that generates about $570,000 annually; about $85,000 annually the county gets from cell phone fees; and $85,000 from state tax revenue, Champaign County officials said.

But additional money is needed.

The levy did not generate the $715,000 annually as expected, and state tax revenue has dropped about 47 percent since 2009, Champaign County officials said.

Last fall, voters overwhelmingly rejected a 0.5-mill levy that would have generated $350,000 annually to fund the dispatch center.

Champaign County officials announced last week they plan to place the tax levy on the ballot again in November, saying cuts will be needed if the levy fails again.

Champaign County Emergency Management Agency Director Craig Evans, who is also chair of the dispatch operations board, said about $130,000 in cuts could be made to technology at the center, and staff reductions are possible.

“Running a dispatch center is not cheap. When you consolidate services like dispatching, it can be a cost savings, but even if you’re not saving money, those dollars can be used more effectively,” Evans said.

He said consolidating services makes it easier for EMA officials and first responders to organize and respond to emergencies because information can be gathered at one location.

He said Champaign County’s center operates under a Council of Governments (COG) in which a group of stakeholders from area jurisdictions oversee operations. Evans also said the county has a fiscal board and an operations board with representatives from the county, city of Urbana, townships and villages.

Evans also said officials were conservative in their levy request before the center opened, but seven years later have a better picture of how much it costs to finance the operation.

Clark County Administrator Nathan Kennedy said Clark County officials will discuss whether to form a COG and explore multiple financing options.

Kennedy said officials need to determine how much each entity spends on dispatch operations, the cost of operating a combined dispatch center, how much jurisdictions would contribute toward the project and whether current funding sources or a permanent revenue source such as a levy would be needed.

“We’re still in the exploration stage,” Kennedy said.

Lohnes would prefer officials use current revenue and other resources to finance the project instead of a levy.

“Excess money from the sales tax is an option, using some of the casino money is an option, but a lot of that depends on what happens in June (with the state budget),” Lohnes said. “I don’t think anybody is ready for a levy. I would think pooling those resources together would more than fund it.”

Montgomery County Regional Dispatch Center, which launched in 2009, switched from charging jurisdictions a price-per-dispatch to a fixed fee.

The change caused costs for smaller agencies that had previously contracted dispatch service with the county to rise.

Dayton officials have said the center saves the city about $1 million annually, but Riverside officials said it withdrew from the system to partner with Huber Heights because cost-per-dispatch escalated from less than $7 in 2007 to $11 in 2011.

Five suburban agencies have withdrawn from the combined center and joined smaller dispatch centers, Sheriff Phil Plummer said.

Still, Plummer said he would encourage other counties to establish a combined center.

“It’s the right thing to do. It saves tax dollars and creates a more efficient center,” Plummer said.

Lohnes said the biggest challenge will be financing.

But he said if area leaders can work out the details, a combined dispatch center would be a win-win for residents and the jurisdictions involved.

Mike Combs, Clark County 911 coordinator, said talks about a unified communication center have gone farther than they did a decade ago.

“It’s too early to say if it’s going to go anywhere, but we’re very hopeful,” Combs said.

Combs said officials want to establish a governing board, operating board and subcommittees for technology, unions, and other policies and procedures.

But he said officials won’t continue if they cannot finance it.

“We’re looking at the issues that Montgomery County, Miami County and Champaign County faced,” Combs said. “We’re trying to keep it cost effective for everybody. We have townships that have money and some that don’t have a lot of money. We’re going to look at everything.”

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