Friday, May 27, 2011

County starts to mull budget requests

Dispatch seeks funds for training, proposes backup center


By KATHERINE WUTZ
Express Staff Writer

The Blaine County Emergency Communications Center kicked off the county's budget-planning process Thursday morning with a dispatch funding request of just over $910,000, slightly up from last year.

The dispatch center's budget request includes a $12,800 line item for training, an expense that Emergency Communications Director Beth English said is her top priority this year.

"My focus is going to be on getting everyone trained and up to speed," English told county commissioners. "I don't want anyone caught behind the curve. When you answer the phone and there's a hysterical caller, you have to know automatically what to do."

She added that training would make dispatchers more effective and would improve her staff's morale.

"You get frustrated, and morale goes down," she said. "The more training they can get, the better the work environment will be."

English said many of her staff members have not received new training since consolidation of 911 dispatch among the county's various government entities occurred in 2007. As a result, the new software and technology the center has acquired may not be used to its full capacity.

"We strive to exceed expectations, but it's not easy without training," she said.

English also expressed the need for a backup dispatch center, though the cost of that center was not reflected in her official request. The Ketchum Communications Center used to serve as the backup dispatch center for the county, but when services were consolidated in 2007, the county lost that luxury.

"If something happened, we have no place to go to continue our emergency services," English said.

The center already has the backup equipment, and English estimated that the cost of a backup center would run between $10,000 to $12,000. The majority of the expenses come from the cost of radio antenna installation.

County Commissioner Angenie McCleary said funding could likely be found in the budget for a backup communications center. Commissioner Larry Schoen agreed, joking, "We could do a bake sale or something."

Despite the commissioners' optimism, the funding method for the dispatch center as a whole is still undecided.

When dispatch was consolidated, the county and cities of Ketchum, Hailey, Sun Valley and Bellevue decided on a formula for funding the system based on the number of addresses in each jurisdiction, rather than by a projected number of calls.

In response to vehement opposition by the city of Sun Valley, which refused to pay its entire dispatch bill this fiscal year, the municipalities have agreed to develop a new model for funding. But whether that model will be based on the number of calls for service from each area, population or a hybrid model is yet to be determined.

"We don't even meet with the other agencies on the funding model until June 2," English said. "We will get a consensus, hopefully that day."

An additional challenge facing English is dropping 911 revenues. The 911 service is funded through a levy weighed on all landline and some wireless phones, but the growing popularity of prepaid cell phone service is taking a hefty toll on the center's funding.

"You've got a lot of people moving away from landline phones, so we're losing revenue," English said.

Though the levy is weighed on cell phones with monthly plans, English said the economy is making prepaid wireless service more appealing to customers who don't want to deal with overage charges.

English estimates the center could pick up an additional 20 percent in funding if the Legislature weighed a levy on prepaid plans. That could not happen until the next session begins in January, and English said the center would likely not see any increase in funding this fiscal year.

"Even once [the Legislature] got the levy in place, you have to give the companies so much notification," she said.

The county will hold its next slate of budget hearings during a special meeting starting at 9 a.m. Tuesday, May 31, at the Old Blaine County Courthouse. The general budget will be discussed at 1:30 p.m.

Katherine Wutz: kwutz@mtexpress.com




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