Lake County Council’s questions over 911 referendum hearing remain
By Rich Bird Post-Tribune correspondent July 5, 2012 1:04PM
Updated: August 7, 2012 6:27AM
CROWN POINT — A month after tabling a public hearing to determine whether to place a 911 dispatch consolidation bond issue referendum on the November ballot, the Lake County Council still has more questions than answers.
Lake County Attorney John Dull approached the council in June, asking that it schedule the public hearing for June 26. Rather than vote against it, the council split 4-3 in favor of tabling the proposal.
Although June 26 passed, the item appeared Thursday on the agenda at the council’s premeeting study session, prompting discussion but no indication of whether the council will schedule a hearing.
Under a state mandate, each county is required to consolidate dispatching services into no more than two buildings by Dec. 31, 2014, or risk losing millions in state 911 communications funding.
The Lake County Emergency Communication Commission (911 Commission), which reports to the Lake County Board of Commissioners, has recommended sites in East Chicago and Hobart.
Councilman Rick Niemeyer, who has opposed putting one of the centers in East Chicago, said Thursday the information necessary to make decisions has not been making its way to him and the other public officials who ultimately will decide how to comply with the mandate and how to pay for it.
“There’s information out there,” Niemeyer said. “But no information has been brought to me. I’m not comfortable with that. … The elected officials need to decide the best cost and the best locations.
“There’re a lot of issues here. Everyone seems to be throwing it on the County Council or the municipal cities and towns, asking, ‘Why aren’t you getting going on this?’ ”
Larry Blanchard, an assistant to the Lake County Board of Commissioners, who has been working with the finance arm of the 911 Commission, said he doesn’t blame Niemeyer. At the same time, he contends the council ought to get the ball rolling on a potential referendum, to be ready if it comes to that.
“There is a perception of, ‘What are you doing approving something without knowing what you’re approving?’ ” Blanchard said. “But they’re not really approving anything, they’re just getting the process started, just in case. They need to do this.”
Councilman Ted Bilski wondered if that time has passed.
“I’m afraid that we stumbled over procedural things here that may have ruined it,” he said.
County Councilman Jerome Prince pointed out that it may be a moot point, considering Dull’s original request for a hearing appeared to be predicated on a strict timetable.
However, at the most recent 911 Commission meeting, Dull delivered a revamped interlocal agreement for consolidation, that must be signed by all the cities and towns under the same law mandating the consolidation. In it, he indicates that a referendum is one of the preferred ways to create a capital building plan for the two dispatch centers.
A voter-approved referendum for a bond issue would place the money outside the existing tax caps, allowing for the money to be raised without cutting into the budgets of the county, cities and towns.
At the same meeting, Dull told the 911 Commission that having delivered the new agreement, he was done with the process.
County Council attorney Ray Szarmach said he assumed Dull would be at the council’s meeting on Tuesday to make another pitch for the hearing. However, Dull said no.
“I’m done with 911,” he said.
Blanchard did tell the council that he was in the process, at the request of the 911 Commission, to set up one or more workshops for elected officials in all the municipalities affected by consolidation, to bring them up to speed on the mandate and the funding hurdles.