Friday, August 8, 2008

Officials weigh solutions to dispatch dispute

Possible short-term way forward proposed by Hailey City Councilwoman Martha Burke

Express Staff Writer

Could there be a solution to the ongoing dispute over who should pay for dispatcher salaries that has Hailey and Blaine County officials at odds?

Perhaps, if a public meeting held in Hailey on Wednesday afternoon to discuss the impasse is any indication. At times heated and other times conciliatory, the meeting ended with what looked like a faint possibility of agreement between both sides.

The disagreement was instigated when the Hailey City Council approved the city's tentative budget for fiscal year 2009 earlier this summer without including funding for the new consolidated dispatch system in Blaine County. For the past few weeks, Hailey and county officials have traded barbs over the disagreement, which stems from the city's claim that it had an over $250,000 tab "sprung" on it at the last minute in May.

Hailey City Councilwoman Martha Burke, who was present when former County Commissioner Sarah Michael first presented the E-911 dispatch upgrade plan six years ago, said last week that city leaders never received a "formal presentation" from county officials about the funding plan.

During Wednesday's meeting at the Old Blaine County Courthouse, Hailey officials presented three alternatives for funding the nearly $1 million annual price tag for dispatcher salaries at the new consolidated dispatch center, which recently opened in the Airport West light-industrial park in south Hailey. The alternatives they've posed include a county vote on a property-tax levy override this November, charging individual municipalities different rates for different levels of service, and raising the county's $1-per-telephone-line-per-month fee that's been used to build and equip the new dispatch facility.

Near the end of Wednesday's two-hour get-together, Burke said it may be possible for the city to provide some level of funding for the coming fiscal year as long as all parties involved agree to continue discussing future funding scenarios. She said could only speak for herself, but that she would bring the idea back to her fellow City Council members to discuss during a public meeting Monday, Aug. 11, at 5:30 p.m.

"That's the best thing I've heard all night," Blaine County Commissioner Tom Bowman said.

Bowman offered to attend the Hailey meeting, to which city officials gladly accepted.

Preceding the collective embrace that was the finale to the afternoon meeting, things were far from harmonious. At times, it looked like there could be no agreement between the two sides, which separated into opposing corners occupied by Hailey, Bellevue and Carey officials on one side, and Ketchum, Sun Valley and county officials on the other.

One thing that has yet to be resolved is the fairness of asking voters countywide to share in the funding of that portion of dispatcher salaries not paid for by the county through a levy override ballot initiative proposed by Hailey officials. Hailey Mayor Rick Davis said the override could be a fairer way to fund the dispatcher salaries than is asking cities to pay for an upgraded service they may not feel they even need. He said he does recognize all the good things the service can provide.

"I'm not sure we're at the point of utilizing all of it, and do we need to?" he said.

Davis warned the county not to cut off dispatch services to the city if Hailey fails to provide funds for the service's operation. Saying they still want to work things out, county officials have previously said they may only provide initial dispatching to Hailey and not provide backup administrative services like running license plate numbers.

"The county would have blood on their hands," Davis said.

Strong statements like those didn't seem to sway county or north valley officials, many of whom said asking their taxpayers to raise property tax levels to fund the dispatch salaries may not go over well.

"It's not penciling out," Sun Valley Mayor Wayne Willich said.

Willich did add that he understands and appreciates the financial pinch Hailey has found itself in. However, he said the city is increasingly placing a greater strain on emergency services in the county. By some estimates, the city's emergency calls have tripled in the past six years.

"You have a city that's moving in a more urbanized way," Willich said.

Officials from the cities of Ketchum and Sun Valley have both agreed to pay their full shares of the dispatch funding identified by county officials.

On Thursday, Hailey City Administrator Heather Dawson said the dispatch funding issue will be one of the first items on the agenda for Monday's meeting. She said the discussion, to which city officials hope Hailey citizens will contribute, will be part of a larger budget discussion.

"We'd love to get any input we can from our citizens," she said.

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