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City cool to county's 911 center offer

By Emily Ford
eford@salisburypost.com
SALISBURY — Not only did Salisbury refuse to meet Rowan County’s 30-day deadline to show interest in consolidating 911 call centers, but City Council members said they’re not exactly happy with two other services the county has already taken over.
City leaders and staff expressed concern Tuesday about handing over the city’s 911 police dispatch service to the county. Interim City Manager Doug Paris advised City Council to study the issue carefully.
“I would not want to do anything that would lower our level of services to citizens, particularly in an area like public safety,” he said.
Animal control and city fire dispatch services have suffered since the county took them over, Paris said.
Instead of agreeing to merge with the county’s planned 911 communications center on Old Concord Road, the Council voted to do a feasibility study, which will take about six months and include public hearings and hiring a consultant, Paris said.
The county wants to consolidate to cut response time, save the city money and qualify for state funding that would pay for new equipment and construction of a back-up 911 center, County Manager Gary Page wrote in a letter to Paris.
Page asked Paris to acknowledge interest in consolidation — which Page said would save Salisbury $400,000 — within 30 days.
City Council members recoiled. They questioned the way the county will pay for the new center (using tax dollars and a 911 reserve fund), the need to build a new back-up facility when the city’s 911 center could serve that purpose, and whether consolidation would benefit Salisbury residents.
“I’m all about meeting deadlines, but I do like to recognize when somebody gives me a false deadline and react accordingly,” Mayor Pro Tem Maggie Blackwell said.
Blackwell suggested adding a comprehensive 911 consolidation study to City Council’s goals for this year. The state will pay for the study, Paris said. Council agreed.
Blackwell also suggested the city set formal expectations for how well the county will deliver animal control and fire 911 dispatch services to Salisbury residents.
Council members voted unanimously to institute service level agreements with the county for animal control and fire dispatch.
Since the county took over animal control in the city, response time has increased to four days, Paris and others said.
Blackwell pointed out that dangerous dogs made the top 10 list of neighborhood concerns during a recent public forum about housing.
“The level of service has declined,” Paris said.
He also said city staff are not satisfied with the fire dispatch service provided by the county. Paris said he asked Page to dedicate one dispatcher for city fire.
“I did not get a positive response,” Paris said.
The county’s call center, which Paris said needs seven positions but has only five, is “both underfunded and understaffed,” he said.
“Before you look at taking on more, you should probably fund and staff that area” adequately, Paris said.
Service level agreements are used in the business world to set goals, measure whether they are achieved and outline consequences if they are not, Blackwell said.
Instituting such contracts with Rowan would provide measurable data to determine if the county meets or even surpasses the city’s expectations, she said.
“Rather than using anecdotal information, we could use hard numbers to measure the performance,” she said.
Paris said he would talk to Page about developing the agreements.
While merging 911 call centers makes sense on the surface, it’s more complicated than it appears, Mayor Susan Kluttz said. She also questioned why the county would use 911 funds and the quarter-cent sales tax to build the new 911 center when state grant money from 911 surcharges is available.
Councilman Brian Miller questioned why the county would build a back-up 911 center when the city’s center could serve as one.
Because the current 911 call centers — the county’s located in the Sheriff’s Office and the city’s in the Police Department — are so close together, the city’s center can’t serve as back-up. A catastrophic event could take out both.
But when the county moves 911 communications to Old Concord Road, the city’s center could apply to be the back-up and would qualify for state funds for new equipment, Paris said.
The county dispatches all calls for police, fire, Rescue Squad and Emergency Medical Services in Rowan County and volunteer fire departments except Salisbury police.
“I realize (consolidation) would result in a sense of loss of control, but we have a good working relationship with the other municipalities and I encourage you to contact them regarding their satisfaction with our service,” Page wrote to Paris.
Miller said while consolidating two departments into one usually makes good fiscal sense, the county’s track record with animal control gives him pause about merging the 911 systems.
“The primary function of municipal government is public safety,” Miller said. “We have to make sure citizens are provided for in this area.”
While the prospect of saving $400,000 is appealing, the city should proceed cautiously, Councilman William “Pete” Kennedy said.
An unbiased expert needs to outline the pros and cons, he said.
“To me, this is something that we don’t need to rush,” Kennedy said.
County commissioners on Monday approved a design for the new 911 communications center, including space for the city. Kennedy said he supports leaving the option open but can’t commit yet.
Councilman Paul Woodson said he liked the idea of pursuing state funds to make the city’s 911 center the back-up.
In his letter, Page said the steps to consolidation would take several years of discussion to accomplish. He also said he predicted the city will eventually want to negotiate transfer of its tower site on Al’s Knob, as well as FCC radio frequency licenses, to the county.
Upcoming required site upgrades will probably cost the city $4 million, he said.
“Transfering this financial obligation to the county would save the city taxpayers thousands of dollars, not to mention the expense of ongoing equipment maintenance and costs,” Page wrote.
Paris questioned the amount of savings listed in Page’s letter and said the county wanted to engage in horse-trading that would diminish the city’s savings in consolidating the 911 call centers.
Contact reporter Emily Ford at 704-797-4264.
In other business
Salisbury City Council also dealt with the following issues during Tuesday’s meeting:
• Discussed the use of the city’s membership to the Centralina Council of Governments. Since 2005, the city has used an average of about half of the 60 annual hours allotted as part of Salisbury’s membership in the group, which offers training and planning services to local governments.
The city last month agreed to allocate 30 hours to the Rowan County United Way Needs Assessment, something Rowan County used to handle. The county has dropped out of the Centralina Council of Governments.
City Council members said they have been pleased with the group’s services and want to stay involved. The city will use the group this year to help train the Zoning Board of Adjustment in minimum housing standard disputes, a new responsibility.
• Council recognized about 20 exchange students from Brunsbuttel, Germany and their two teachers. The exchange program allows German students to visit Salisbury families and participate in local activities like homecoming. Salisbury High School students will travel to Brunsbuttel in spring 2012 as part of the program.
• Omitted discussion of proposed rental fee increases for the Civic Center. Instead, the Council will discuss the rate changes during a budget workshop, Mayor Susan Kluttz said.
• Approved $120,873 contract with Charles R. Underwood Inc. to purchase Floway-3 stage bowl assembly for Salisbury-Rowan Utilities. 
• Took no action after a closed session to meet with City Attorney Rivers Lawther.
• Closed a portion of the 200 block of West Fisher Street from Church Street to just east of the Wrenn House parking lot from midnight to Oct. 14 to midnight Oct. 15 for the Rowan Blues and Jazz Festival.
Closed the 200 and 300 blocks of South Shaver Street Saturday from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. Oct. 22 for the Community Appearance Commission and the Neighborhood Leaders Alliance BlockWork neighborhood improvement program.
Closed the 100 block of West Council Street from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Oct. 25 and possibly Oct. 26 to replace the chiller on the roof located at 132 N. Main St. 
• Kluttz made these proclamations for October: Mental Illness Awareness Week, Fire Prevention Week and Rowan Blues and Jazz Society Day.
• Asked people to consider applying for the newly created Housing Advocacy Commission. Applications are available online at www.salisburync.gov under the Boards and Commissions tab, as well as at the city clerk’s office located at 217 S. Main St. Or call 704-638-5224.

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