Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Hailey backs out of EMS dispatch plan

Decision raises questions about who will fund dispatcher salaries, officials say

Express Staff Writer

A decision by Hailey leaders to forego providing any funding for the county’s new consolidated dispatch center in their fiscal year 2009 budget has officials from both sides at an impasse. Blaine County funded the construction on the new facility, which will field emergency police and medical calls for all of the county and its cities. Photo by Willy Cook

A county-wide emergency dispatch system may have to go without funding from the city of Hailey.

A tentative budget for fiscal year 2009 approved by the city council last month didn't include funding for the new consolidated dispatch system.

The apparent opt-out by Hailey comes on the heels of a request from the county that the cities of Sun Valley, Ketchum, Hailey and Bellevue help shoulder the cost of running the new consolidated dispatch center, which will be housed in the new Blaine County jail. The public safety facility's grand opening is scheduled to take place later today.

Hailey's retreat from the funding puts a question mark over who will pay for the salaries of the dispatchers, Blaine County Administrator Mike McNees said Monday.

McNees said the other cities have all indicated that they will help shoulder the cost of the dispatcher salaries, at least to some degree. For the moment, consolidated dispatch is being funded by the county and the cities of Ketchum and Sun Valley, he said.

Hailey officials say they are trying to keep from cutting back on their own emergency personnel.

McNees said a users group made up of all the cities—including representatives from Hailey—has been meeting throughout the year to discuss the structure of the new consolidated dispatch program and how the shares of the dispatcher salaries should be fairly apportioned.

McNees said this led to a preliminary set of numbers detailing each of the cities' shares of the costs, which was sent out in February. The total cost share for Hailey, which has the largest population of any city in the county, was set at $296,557, information provided by McNees indicates.

Shares for the other cities and the Blaine County Sheriff's Department went down from there, ranging from $269,401 for the county sheriff's department to $62,978 for Bellevue.

McNees said those estimates have since been dropped. The new numbers envision that Hailey provide about $250,000 to help fund the consolidated dispatch program, he said.

McNees said the users group based the shares for each of the cities and the county on service call volumes. To apportion them by population would have meant a higher cost for the city of Hailey.

The service-volume tallies place a greater share of the funding on the cities of Sun Valley and Ketchum. He said officials from those cities have indicated they are willing to pay for the higher cost share because their residents generally favor a higher level of service, which leads to more calls to dispatchers.

"They're going to have certain things dispatched that Hailey is not," he said. "They were willing to pay for the service they get."

McNees said that during a recent meeting with the county, Hailey officials said they were upset because they feel the funding request has been sprung on them at the last minute.

"That's certainly not what's happened," McNees said.

McNees said the county is not trying to force the funding responsibility on anyone. He said they're aware of the budget constraints everyone is facing due to the struggling economy and want to work with all of the partners.

McNees said Hailey officials recently asked him for a detailed description of what it would mean services-wise should the city decide to opt out of funding consolidated dispatch. Speaking Monday, he said that would essentially limit Hailey emergency responders to receiving the initial dispatch call, but nothing more.

In a letter to Hailey officials, McNees said the reduced funding would mean reduced staffing levels at the dispatch center.

"The first adjustment to the level of service would be that the communications center would no longer cover the city's police administrative calls during the hours that your administrative lines are unmanned," he writes.

But from Hailey's perspective, there's more to the issue than simply how much each city should be responsible to pay to fund consolidated dispatch according to city administrator Heather Dawson. Documents provided by Dawson indicate the city would have to eliminate five emergency service positions from their budget in order to pay for emergency service dispatch.

She said city officials also question whether it's proper of the county to ask the cities to help fund dispatcher salaries.

"We're not sure," she said.

Dawson said they believe a better option may be to have the county seek voter approval for a levy override to raise additional property taxes to fund the dispatch center. She said such a vote, patterned after the successful levy rate increase request by the county in May to fund the ambulance district—would require a two-thirds majority vote to pass.

Hailey officials are set to meet with county leaders today, Wednesday, July 23, to discuss the impasse.

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