Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Hailey threatens to pull out of dispatch network

Calls-for-service model poses challenges

Express Staff Writer

A calls-for-service-based model for paying for emergency response in Blaine County has re-ignited divisions between north- and south-valley cities.

In a special meeting at the Blaine County Courthouse on Thursday, June 2, Hailey City Councilman Don Keirn threatened to pull out of the consolidated emergency 911 dispatch center at the Blaine County jail in Hailey if the new model, based on call volumes per city, is adopted.

"Any change from the current system is going to force Hailey to seek other options," Keirn said.

In an interview, he declined to elaborate on what those other options might be.

Sun Valley City Councilman Nils Ribi recommended at the meeting that the county adopt a calls-for-service model that includes a 10 percent annual cap on the amount of increase a city would pay.

Sun Valley Mayor Wayne Willich spoke in favor of that idea and described such a scenario as "subsidizing" the cities of Hailey and Bellevue incrementally until they can make equitable contributions to the system.

Sun Valley Councilman Dewayne Briscoe also supported the plan, which would take five years of increases for Hailey and Bellevue to satisfy Sun Valley's expectations.

"We have an older population in Sun Valley," he said. "They would like to see things done in their lifetimes."

"This may be reasonable to you," said Bellevue City Councilman Dave Hattula. "But this would amount to our entire Fire Department budget. Where do you propose we come up with this money? Do we print it in our basement?"

In 2007, Blaine County and the city of Ketchum pooled their emergency dispatchers into one group working out of the Blaine County Sheriff's Office in Hailey, using an updated system that has many advantages, but is costly. It allows for doctors to talk someone through cardiopulmonary resuscitation with the emergency medical dispatch component of the system, for example, but requires more personnel to operate.

Which cities pay how much for the increased cost of dispatcher salaries has been a bone of contention since Blaine County billed cities three years ago based on a calls-for-service model.

Hailey, the city with the largest population in the county, was charged $296,557. Shares for the other cities and the Blaine County Sheriff's Office went down from there, ranging from $269,401 for the Sheriff's Office to $62,978 for Bellevue.

Hailey and Bellevue balked at the new bill, and in April 2009, the county agreed to a funding model to pay dispatchers' salaries based on a "dwelling unit" model for fiscal 2010. The model determined the amount each municipality would pay for emergency dispatch services based on the number of addresses in each jurisdiction.

Under the current plan, Hailey pays $138,898 and Bellevue pays $28,569. Sun Valley and Ketchum pay $112,098 and $164,173, respectively. The county pays $400,000.

When Sun Valley recently refused to pay the full amount of its annual share, a committee formed by E-911 stakeholders to settle the payment dispute called for an analysis of emergency calls over the past year to establish which cities, or portions of the county, generated them.

The answer was complex because calls from cell phones are hard to track and various agencies respond to calls in one another's districts.

County mapping specialist Chuck Corwin presented on Thursday a map of 60 regions in Blaine County that could be the source of E-911 calls, and explained the complex process of manually backtracking data to establish which calls came from which area. It was described by county Administrator Derek Voss as a painstaking and time-consuming process.

"The most equitable formula is the most challenging one," Voss said. "We don't have a button we can push to find out how many calls come from Sun Valley."

Emergency Communications Director Beth English said many people could make cell phone calls about a single accident and that every call automatically generates a call for service.

"A barbecue in somebody's yard could generate five calls," she said, but pointed out that one emergency requiring several different agencies could result in only one call generated.

"Everything depends on whatever," she said.

County Commission Chair Angenie McCleary said the debate was akin to an argument over a dinner tab.

"The calls-for-service model is based on what you actually ate," she said. "The address model is based on your potential appetite. I see merits in both models."

Tony Evans:

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