Friday, February 10, 2012

Dispatch suggestions disappoint

Commission’s guidance ‘unhelpful,’ say officials


By KATHERINE WUTZ
Express Staff Writer

E-911 dispatch supervisor Danna Hillman consults multiple screens at the Blaine County Dispatch Center in Hailey. For the moment, Hillman keeps track of all incoming calls from across the county—but that could change if Hailey decides to set up its own center for non-emergency calls, such as license checks and other administrative tasks. Photo by David N. Seelig

Hopes were high that a state agency could sort out Blaine County's consolidated dispatch woes, but the Idaho Emergency Communications Commission's recommendations for funding and managing a dispatch center are largely disappointing, county and Hailey officials say.

The recommendation states that the county must use a "fair" and "transparent" method of funding consolidated dispatch, as well as consulting all partners in dispatch on that funding process.

The problem, said Blaine County Administrator Derek Voss, is that these recommendations are nothing new.

"What's interesting about this document is that it doesn't give us guidance to do anything different from what we already do," Voss said.

The main argument that led Blaine County and the cities of Hailey and Sun Valley into mediation was a dispute over how consolidated dispatch services should be funded.

Emergency communications services are partially funded by the E-911 levy and the county, which covers the cost of emergency 911 calls and calls for the Blaine County Sheriff's Office. The remainder of the cost, roughly $401,850, is split among the cities using a formula based on the number of addresses in each jurisdiction.

Sun Valley has consistently maintained that this method is unfair as its addresses are mostly vacant second homes, and billing should be based on the number of calls for service that each jurisdiction receives per year. Hailey has argued that the model is more than fair.

Those cities found little resolution in the commission's recommendation for funding.

In a ruling given to the heads of all jurisdictions, the commission states: "[T]here are various factors that are appropriate to use in a formula to determine the amount of contribution of stakeholders. ... [T]hese factors can include call volume as well as population and the number of housing units."

Hailey Mayor Fritz Haemmerle said Wednesday that the recommendation is hardly a recommendation at all.

"It's highly unhelpful," he said. "I don't think it resolves any dispute whatsoever. What that thing said is that you all can use any funding model you want to."

Sun Valley City Council Member Nils Ribi said the recommendation somewhat validates Sun Valley's argument for a new model.

"They certainly did not validate the current approach," Ribi said. "It's a recommendation that there is no particular right way to do it. Perhaps we can come to a fairer approach."

Voss said he discussed the recommendation's ambiguity with the commission last month.

"Their comment is, they don't want to tell local jurisdictions what to do or how to do it," he said. "They don't believe they have better information than Blaine County and its partners."

Voss said those partners are set to meet and discuss funding models in mid-March, following individual meetings of the city councils in early March. He said the goal is to come up with a funding model by the third week in May to allow the cities and the county to budget for dispatch costs.

"Everyone needs this information early in the budget process," he said. "If the [advisory group] can't come to an agreement, then it's still the board's responsibility to decide what funding methodology they will use."

Similar discussions have been taking place with little resolution since 2007, when emergency communications were consolidated into one dispatch center.

Haemmerle said the city of Hailey is still considering filing a lawsuit against the county, and could choose to divert its nonemergency dispatch calls into a separate facility than the central dispatch center.

"We could always go our own way," he said. "We'll have to sit down and think about our options."

Katherine Wutz: kwutz@mtexpress.com

Mediation coverage

Blaine County and the cities of Hailey and Sun Valley met with members of the Idaho Emergency Communications Commission in mid-December. For coverage on that meeting, search "Progress slow in dispatch mediation" on our homepage, www.mtexpress.com.




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