Wednesday, August 6, 2008

Emergency dispatch special meeting to occur today

County officials hope to settle dispute with Hailey over E-911 fee

Express Staff Writer

The Blaine County Commission will hold a meeting with local mayors and fire district board chairmen today to discuss alternate funding models for the countywide E-911 emergency dispatch service. The meeting was called to work out differences over a $250,000 bill the county sent to Hailey last month to pay for the new service. The city was told it must pay the bill by Oct. 1 to keep its current level of emergency dispatch services.

A letter written Friday by County Commission Chairman Tom Bowman calling for the meeting stated, "There is no statutory obligation that counties provide emergency dispatch service and Blaine County no longer desires to provide, for free, this service to the cities and fire districts."

Hailey is the most populous city in the county and has been assessed the relatively high fee because it places the highest demand on the system. Yet the city slashed its operating budget by 10 percent this year due to an extended downturn in the local economy, and budgeted no money for the new dispatch service. Bellevue, which cut its budget by $100,000 this year, paid only $12,000 of a $67,000 bill assessed it for its share of emergency calls.

The county offered last year to pay half the first annual E-911 fee for both cities as a "phase-in" payment option. However, Hailey City Administrator Heather Dawson said the city has declined that offer on the grounds that the entire fee is an unfair "double-tax" on citizens of Hailey for a service they already pay for through county property taxes.

"Hailey residents should receive dispatch services now for the portion of county taxes they have paid for that purpose," Dawson said.

A letter sent by County Administrator Mike McNees to the city on July 7 stipulated that the city's dispatch services would be significantly reduced if the city did not participate in the funding request.

Hailey police Chief Jeff Gunter said the reduction could jeopardize the safety of police officers and residents of Hailey and render his department's services "unprofessional."

Hailey's city council has unanimously claimed that the county never made a "formal request" for payment of the new service before presenting the bill. County officials maintain the city has been a part of the process for about a year, and that the fee should come as no surprise.

"They've been at the table the whole time," said County Commission Chairman Tom Bowman. Last week Hailey offered three alternatives to paying the fee: a county vote for a tax levy override to pay for it, charging individual municipalities different rates for different levels of service, and raising the county's $1 per telephone line per month fee it currently uses to fund dispatch. These options and others will be discussed today in an effort to settle the dispute.

"We presented these options in the interest of working with the county and not being obstructionist in ways we don't need to be, " Dawson said.

The Hailey City Council voted two weeks ago to provide "stop gap" funding to stay in the E-911 system until the county could collect money from a county-wide ballot initiative in January 2010, though the council did specify an amount.

The county has so far refused the offer. On the table for today's meeting will be a potential property tax override affecting only Hailey city override vote to pay the fee.

Today's meeting will be held at 4 p.m. in the Old Blaine County Courthouse.

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