Friday, August 22, 2008

Officials make progress on dispatch funding

Groups backing open-space levy override are optimistic about ballot initiative’s chances

Express Staff Writer

Under a proposed dispatch funding strategy developed Thursday by county officials, 12 dispatchers would be hired to staff the new Blaine County dispatch center during the 2009 fiscal year.

After crunching the numbers on Thursday, County Administrator Mike McNees said the tentative proposal—which he was set to present to Hailey leaders in a letter—asks the cities of Hailey and Bellevue to together come up with an additional $9,000 so the twelfth dispatcher can be hired.

McNees said having 12 dispatchers would allow for three, rather than the usual two, to be on shift during what's been called the "power shift" on Fridays and Saturdays when the highest call volumes typically take place.

McNees and other county officials were sent back to the drawing boards yesterday after the Blaine County Commission agreed Tuesday to a request from Hailey leaders to have county voters consider a property-tax levy override this November to pay for dispatcher salaries. The dispatch funding issue came to a head after Hailey City Council members recently approved the city's tentative budget for fiscal year 2009 without including funding for the new consolidated dispatch system.

Earlier this week, the City Council shifted course slightly by agreeing to provide $60,000 for dispatcher salaries in the city's 2009 budget, though it stipulated it would only provide those funds if the county agreed to put the override proposal before voters.

If approved by the necessary two-thirds majority, the dispatch override would begin paying for dispatcher salaries in 2010. Until that time, the county and local cities will have to fund the salaries out of their own budgets.

McNees said the county will not be able to provide back-up administrative services like running license plate numbers to the cities of Hailey and Bellevue if they're unable to come up with their full share of the dispatch funding.

"We're talking about non-emergency calls," he said.

For now, the cities have said they will provide only about a quarter of the dispatcher funding share they've been requested to pay. County leaders have said they will cover the remainder during 2009.

McNees said he's closing in on a figure for the amount of added property tax the dispatch levy override would mean for county homeowners.

Meanwhile, backers of another levy override that county voters are set to consider this November are moving quickly to begin their promotional campaign. Local nonprofits Citizens for Smart Growth, Idaho Conservation League, The Nature Conservancy and the Wood River Land Trust have joined forces to create a new group called Blaine County Citizens for Water and Wildlife.

The coalition of groups contend the measure could raise $3.5 million over its two-year life span. If approved, the override would mean an annual increase of $50 in property taxes paid by the average taxpayer, based on the county's median home value of $436,000.

The proposed Blaine County open space levy is modeled after a similar two-year levy Boise voters approved in 2001. The levy raised $10 million for conservation efforts in the nearby Boise Foothills.

It would only need a simple majority to pass. The groups take a measure of confidence from two polls conducted this year that show strong support—to the tune of 65 percent approval—for the idea of the open space levy override.

"We feel very confident," said Citizens for Smart Growth Executive Director Vanessa Crossgrove-Fry.

The groups don't have specific plots in mind for protection, but Crossgrove-Fry said they're looking at the Big Wood River corridor, Silver Creek and the Little Wood River watershed north of Carey, based on recent surveys.

She said the groups are close to hiring a campaign manager to lead Blaine County Citizens for Water and Wildlife.

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