Friday, July 20, 2012

Shed the distrust and fix dispatch funding

The chair of the Blaine County Board of County Commissioners and the mayors of the area's cities need to go into a room and not come out until they've hammered out a fair agreement on paying for emergency dispatch services.

It shouldn't be impossible, but given that the years-long dispute over who will pay what has shredded relationships among county, Sun Valley and Hailey officials, it looks unresolvable. Yet, it must be resolved.

The two cities and the county are the main combatants in a dispute that has flared on and off since voters defeated a move to increase property taxes to fund dispatch services in 2008.

Threats and grandstanding characterized the city of Sun Valley's approach under former Mayor Wayne Willich. Hailey's style was more penurious and pouty while county officials played the long-suffering parent to both cities.

Distrust and tenuous theories about what fair shares of funding would look like shredded negotiations. Fact became fiction. Beliefs became bullying.

Sun Valley and Hailey both elected new mayors last November. The change opened the door to resolving the issue, even if just a crack.

Good dispatch services are the linchpin of good emergency services. They connect the valley's police, fire, ambulance and search and rescue personnel. Most of the time, dispatchers operate sight unseen. They're the voice on the end of the 911 call that links the helpless to hope in the middle of the night. They're the connection that brings critical backup police officers or more fire crews or rescue teams to keep incidents from spiraling into disaster. But invisible means dispatchers are easy to take for granted.

Cities all over the country are finding it difficult to fund emergency services. In Detroit, Mich. this week, a boy who jumped or fell from his ninth-story apartment was taken to the hospital in a police car because no ambulance responded. In newly bankrupt Stockton, Calif., homeowners groups are hiring private security companies to protect their families and property because police sometimes don't come when called.

Dispatch funding is a small part of the big picture when it comes to protecting the public, but it's critical. With the entire Sun Valley area economy dependent on attracting visitors, public safety is paramount. When things are quiet, getting public attention is difficult, but when disaster strikes it can generate the kind of publicity that could be an economic disaster in itself.

Both visitors and residents need the comfort of knowing that help is just a phone call away. City and county leaders need to concoct a new recipe. Today's sour and sticky stew has simmered far too long.

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