Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Dispatch levy down in early returns

Failure could lead to mediation

Express Staff Writer

Based on early election returns late Tuesday evening, Blaine County voters appeared to be rejecting a request to permanently boost their property-tax levy rates to pay for dispatchers' salaries at the county's new consolidated dispatch center in Hailey.

Called Proposition 2, or the Dispatch Center Override, the ballot measure would raise an additional $835,000 per year to fund operational expenses of the consolidated 911 dispatch communications center, which is managed by the Blaine County Commission.

But with 11 of Blaine County's 15 precincts reporting, those voting "yes" on the ballot initiative totaled 3,565 votes, or about 47 percent of the returns. Those voting "no" totaled at 4,045 votes, or about 53 percent of the early returns.

Approval of the permanent override would require a two-thirds majority.

For county homeowners, the levy override would mean an extra $6.71 per $100,000 of assessed value on their annual property taxes. Based on the county's median home value of $436,000, that would add an extra $29.25.

The $1-per-month, per-phone-line charge approved by county voters in 2002 to enhance the county's emergency 911 system cannot be used to fund dispatcher salaries. According to county officials, those funds can be used only for maintenance at the dispatch center and other costs not associated with dispatchers' salaries.

The 2002 vote led to consolidation of all emergency dispatch services in the county into one service in Hailey in December 2007. However, a disagreement arose earlier this year between the county and local cities over who should fund dispatchers' salaries.

Finally, in July, county officials agreed to a request from Hailey leaders to have county voters consider the levy override this November. If approved, the measure would not begin paying for dispatcher salaries until 2010. Until that time, the county and local cities will have to fund the salaries out of their own budgets.

Under a proposed dispatch funding strategy developed earlier this summer by county officials, 12 dispatchers were hired to staff the center during fiscal 2009, which began Oct. 1. County officials had hoped to hire 13 dispatchers, but can't because Hailey and Bellevue have only paid about a quarter of the funding requested of them.

The county is covering enough of the gap to hire 12 dispatchers, will allow for three, rather than two, dispatchers to be on shift during the "power shift" on Fridays and Saturdays when the highest call volume typically takes place, Blaine County Administrator Mike McNees has said.

One significant question coming into Tuesday's election was whether homeowners from the north county—especially in Ketchum and Sun Valley—would agree to increase their property-tax rates. Elected officials from these locations have said the override favors south-valley residents and places a larger funding burden on north-county homeowners.

Should the measure fail at the polls, as it appears like it may, the disagreement between the county and south Wood River Valley cities will almost certainly proceed to mediation—an idea some north-valley elected officials had begun to support even before the election.

A similar dispatch funding disagreement landed the cities of Kimberly and Buhl in mediation with Twin Falls County. The cities eventually agreed to help fund the dispatcher salaries.

Last month, Sun Valley City Councilman Nils Ribi said a similar outcome could happen locally if area cities and the county agree to sit down in a mediation setting.

"I think that's a real reasonable approach to solving this," he said.

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