Friday, December 16, 2011

Progress slow in dispatch mediation

3 parties share 3 disparate views

Express Staff Writer

Though the consolidated emergency communications center, above, has been operating since 2008, Blaine County, the city of Sun Valley and the city of Hailey went to mediation over the centerís funding on Tuesday. Express file photo

Representatives from Blaine County, the city of Sun Valley and the city of Hailey presented different views of the consolidated dispatch problem during a meeting with the Idaho Emergency Communications Commission on Tuesday afternoon.

Emergency communications for Blaine County were consolidated into one dispatch center in 2008, but county attorney Tim Graves said there have been "profound differences" over how the system should be funded since the process of consolidation began in 2002.

"No one can claim we have not discussed this issue," Graves told the commission during the meeting. "[But] we need leadership. We need to put aside agency positions and legal arguments."

Graves said the county did not have a particular position on how the cities split the cost of funding the dispatch center.

The county pays for a total of six dispatchers, enough to have one dispatcher on duty 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Another seven dispatchers, who provide backup service and perform administrative duties, are funded by the cities through a formula based on the number of housing units and hotel rooms in each area.

That formula has been vehemently opposed by Sun Valley, which says it results in its paying a disproportionate amount.

Sun Valley City Councilman Nils Ribi said his town has 24 percent of the housing units in the county but only 6 percent of the population, and produces 7 to 10 percent of calls to the dispatch center.

"We think there is a significant imbalance," he said. "Sun Valley never agreed to the convoluted method of using housing units. In Sun Valley, we have nearly 70 percent of our residences vacant nearly all of the year."

According to the county, the reason for including housing units and hotel rooms is that these spaces could be occupied by out-of-towners who could need service.

"The coming hoards who will make shopping in our grocery stores very difficult—those folks are going to need dispatch services," Graves said.

But Ribi argued that Sun Valley should not be solely responsible for these valleywide seasonal fluctuations.

"We do see spikes in population during the year, but our partners also see those spikes," he said. "Sun Valley actually doesn't have a grocery store, so clearly it is our partners who are seeing those spikes."

Ribi admitted that seasonal visitors generate calls for service due to slips and falls and alarms being set off—but those can be accounted for through a calls-for-service model, he said, in which jurisdictions pay based on the average number of calls placed to the dispatch center.

"We're very happy to pay for that," Ribi told commissioners. "That is actual data. That is not a hypothetical number based on some vacant home that happens to be out there."


Graves said the county is not opposed to a calls-for-service model, but county E-911 Coordinator Beth English said the current dispatch system is outdated, making gathering calls-for-service data difficult.

"It's very hard for us to pull out the data we need," she said, adding that the dispatch center had to call in an outside consultant to pull out data for earlier discussions.

According to that data, Sun Valley produced 7.5 percent of total calls for service in June 2011, compared to Bellevue's 10.8 percent and Hailey's 34.8 percent.

Hailey City Attorney Ned Williamson said the calls-for-service model is irrelevant, as the county should be obligated to provide all funding for a consolidated dispatch center, rather than asking the cities to pitch in.

"There's no question in my mind that Blaine County is solely responsible for providing and funding emergency dispatch," Williamson told the commissioners.

He argued that the county is the sole governing body for the dispatch system, and is also obligated to provide the system because it's required to have a sheriff's office, which needs a dispatch system. Williamson also argued that Hailey should have the right to provide service for administrative calls, such as barking dogs and driver's license lookups, in a separate city-based dispatch center.

"What I'm suggesting is that you [the commissioners] look at what calls have to be provided by the emergency communications system," he said.

The commissioners did not make a ruling on the issue during the mediation, and Chair Rich Wills said the commission has up to 60 days to decide on a nonbinding solution. If none of the parties agree on the solution, a state court will take up the case.

The commissioners did ask representatives if the county and city residents might be willing to switch to a levy system under which the dispatch center would be funded by an assessment on county property taxes. Graves said the county would consider it.

"Blaine County is always willing to consider putting this matter to the voters if that's what our partners are telling us is the best way to gain funding," he said. "We haven't heard that from our partners."

And they will not hear that from Sun Valley, Ribi said.

"Sun Valley does not feel that going to a property tax levy would be in the best interest of our taxpayers," he said.

Wills said a solution was possible, but likely to be difficult despite the "good foundation" that the parties have set during previous discussions. The issue is "fraught" and complex, Wills said, though he added that the commission would try to come to a decision as quickly as possible.

"This is not going to be easy," he said. "It's going to be difficult at best. But saying that doesn't mean it can't happen."

Katherine Wutz:

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