Rocky road toward 911 consolidation in Lake County
By Rich Bird Post-Tribune correspondent May 26, 2012 9:00PM
The Lake County Public Safety Commission is considering space at the Hobart Police Department for one of two consolidated emergency dispatch centers. | Jeffrey D. Nicholls~Sun-Times Media
Updated: July 3, 2012 10:49AM
CROWN POINT — When the Lake County Public Safety Communications Commission (aka the 911 Commission) voted last week to back a new taxing district to pay for state-mandated 911 center consolidation, they did so using a financial roadmap drawn by County Attorney John Dull.
That map, based on discussion among members of the county’s smaller 911 Finance Committee, is long and winding. And while the 911 Commission took the first step by sending its request to the Lake County Council, it’s unclear what path officials will choose or where the journey will end.
The route backed by the 911 Commission is an entirely new taxing body that will add to the property tax burden and create another level of bureaucracy. Another is by way of a county option income tax, to which major county officials stand opposed.
Among the destinations is a pair of existing buildings — in East Chicago and Hobart — that might be refit to house redundant dispatch centers. Another is a vacant lot somewhere in the county where a sign will declare “Coming Soon: New construction!”
The only certainties are what will happen if officials refuse to keep moving forward, and that Lake County residents — be they phone users, homeowners or those simply earning a paycheck — are going to pay.
No looking back
On March 28, Gov. Mitch Daniels signed into law House Enrolled Act 1204, which requires every county to reduce the sum of its dispatch centers down to a maximum of two by Dec. 31, 2014.
The author, State Sen. Brandt Hershman, R-Wheatfield, designed it to reduce delays in emergency response time and wasted tax money.
“Many counties consolidating emergency dispatch centers are seeing positive results,” he said in a release following the bill signing. “Taxpayer dollars are saved, but most importantly, lives can be saved when communication is streamlined.”
The law sets a statewide 90-cent monthly fee on landline and cellular phone bills, and 50 cents per transaction for prepaid phones and phone cards. That amounts to a three-year average of about $2.3 million annually per county, with Lake and other larger counties paying in more than they will receive to cover smaller rural counties, officials have said.
It also provides for updates to Indiana’s emergency alert system and calls for a future study of the funding structure of 911 centers. Hershman plans to introduce additional legislation in 2013 to “improve and stabilize emergency dispatch funding needs,” according to the same release.
Until then, counties must determine how to pay for the construction, equipment and operational costs above the $2.3 million — roughly $36 million for the first year alone for Lake county’s two-center plan. Some counties have made the switch without much hassle, but Lake County must combine it’s own sheriff’s dispatcher service with those of 17 other municipalities.
Any county that does not meet the deadline faces financial pitfalls, including the loss of the guaranteed state money; even if a county opts out, residents still will pay the higher phone fees, but all of the revenue will go to the counties that comply.
Also, if the federal government ever institutes requirements for 911 services, the county would need to find a way to pay for them. Meanwhile, as the U.S. Department of Transportation moves forward with its ongoing Next Generation 911 initiative, Lake County could be left without access to the system, according to Dull’s memo.
One building or two?
Working with the recommendations laid out by Indianapolis-based planning firm RQAW, the 911 Commission determined months ago that the most inexpensive route to consolidation would involve the rehabilitation of existing buildings over new construction.
RQAW’s cost analysis of its top recommendation — the second floor of the former Blaw-Knox Co. administration building in the 4400 block of Railroad Avenue in East Chicago — estimated a total project cost between $3.5 million and 4.3 million. The second site, located in the Hobart Police Department building at 705 E. 4th St., is estimated to run between $3.6 million and $4.4 million. Both buildings have a projected construction period of 17 to 23 months, RQAW Senior Vice President Joseph Mrak has said.
The 911 commissioners backed the two-center plan on Feb. 23, and the Lake County Board of Commissioners ratified that recommendation on April 2, contingent on finding a way to pay for it.
At the time, Mrak said RQAW made its site analysis and recommendations based on the assumption there would be two buildings, each being a “completely redundant backup to the other” with 50 total dispatch positions (11 to 14 working at any one time).
Last month, the 911 Commission turned down Hammond Mayor Tom McDermott Jr.’s 11th-hour pitch to locate one of the centers in his city. The commission stood by its recommendation, despite McDermott’s offer to give his existing dispatch center to the county, as well as a pledge of $1.5 million in cash to help renovate and expand the building at 500 E. Fayette Ave.
Yet, Dull’s memo — prefaced by the stipulation that it would cause a “gnashing of teeth” — has broached the subject of trimming the cost by suggesting new construction of a centrally located building.
That suggestion was the first to be questioned by members of the 911 Committee, which is made up mostly of emergency responders.
“It seems like any progress we’ve made disappears outside this commission room,” Hobart Police Chief Jeff White said Thursday. “Our facilities committee recommended two (buildings). The commissioners agreed to two. Now we’re back to a single (building), and we’re getting things from John Dull, who’s conveniently in Europe, talking about a single facility.”
County Councilman Mike Repay, who sits on the 911 Finance Committee, said the discussion that generated Dull’s memo took into account the need for a backup in the event of a disaster.
“The way I understood it is we won’t have continuous operation of two centers,” he said Thursday. “You can have redundancy basically ready to go in the case of a catastrophic event and just plug in and go. Some people in the finance committee disagree. Frankly, we don’t have the money for two centers.”
When the question was raised at Thursday’s 911 Commission meeting, Munster Police Chief Steve Scheckel said, “I have not had one meeting with the finance committee, but make no mistake about it, there are going to be two (dispatch centers) in East Chicago and Hobart.
“Why are they talking about one facility? My understanding is this is really about finances. The question is are we going to really be able to staff and sustain two facilities immediately out of the block? Unfortunately there are a lot of unknowns.”
Herbert Cruz, emergency management director of East Chicago, specifically requested that the 911 Commission’s letter to the County Council, recommending consideration of a new taxing district to fund consolidation, contain language defending the need for two centers.
“We need to stand strong and impress upon them the importance of redundancy,” he said.
How to pay
County officials now stand at a crossroads without a compass. According to Dull, the “critical unknown” is what additional dollars it will receive above the $2.3 million from phone fees.
Without implementing a county income tax, Dull estimates the state’s new phone fees must be inflated 160.9 percent to support two dispatch centers. A single dispatch center would require a 67.4 percent increase.
Those figures are based on the assumption that the existing 911 operating budgets of the sheriff’s department and the 17 municipalities are absorbed into the consolidated operation.
That’s an assumption the 911 Commission wasn’t willing to make last week.
“The county is in a tough financial situation,” said Dan Murchek, deputy chief of the Lake County Sheriff’s Department. “They need to pass the county option income tax. The can has been kicked down the road, and kicked down the road and kicked down the road. The white elephant is still in the room, and it isn’t going away. I understand nobody wants a tax, but this helps everybody. It helps the school districts. It helps unfreeze the levy.”
He then asked what the municipalities intend to pay.
According to Larry Blanchard, the former county councilman-turned-consultant for the Board of Commissioners who sits on both the 911 Finance Committee and the 911 Commission, there is no commitment from the cities and towns to pay in, though he believes that will be part of the interlocal agreement each of the cities and towns eventually will sign.
Consultant Les Miller, of IYP Solutions, who is helping guide the commission through the consolidation process, said a budget will need to be in place before an agreement is signed — which didn’t really answer the question.
Tom Dabertin, yet another consultant on the project, contends nothing is in place to force the cities and towns to pay in.
“You’re going to have a difficult time when the law doesn’t require contributions,” Dabertin said. He wouldn’t name names, but said several communities support consolidation only “because they want to get out of that business.”
In his memo, Dull addressed that point, and the roughly $7.5 million at stake.
“When Porter County implemented its consolidation, they ran into a funding problem because there was no transfer of the operating budgets from the respective units to the county consolidation,” he wrote. “… I am certain that the units would object to the transfer of 100 percent of their 911 operating budget to the county. This will obviously be a very controversial point.”
So beyond the phone fees, where will the money come from? Dull summarized the possible sources:
Have voters approve a bond issue for the capital outlay, which would not affect the county’s general fund levy.
Persuade the General Assembly to increase the phone fees to $1.50 per month; allow 911 funds and phone fees to be used for construction/renovation and/or pay for bonds on capital items; allow the county to set additional phone fees as needed.
Create a Public Safety Communication Systems and Computer Facilities taxing district, as suggested by the 911 Commission.
Enact a county option income tax, which would require either the approval County Council (with a supermajority of five to override a likely veto by the Board of Commissioners), or the approval of the Lake County Income Tax Council, which is made up of all the taxing bodies in the county.
Blanchard also described a scenario where the county could appeal to the state for a maximum levy increase above the freeze, which comes with no guarantee of approval.
“The plan with the least negative impact would be to have only one center, to have voter approval of the bond issue, to require all 18 units — including Lake County — to turn over all of their current 911 budgets to the consolidated budget, to have less staff, and to operate with a $9.8 million operating budget at the outset, and to expand only when the full impact of the increase in phone fees is known,” Dull wrote.
The County Council meets again at 10 a.m. June 12 at the Lake County Government Center.