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County, city at odds over 911 center

By Karissa Minn and Emily Ford
kminn@salisburypost.com
SALISBURY ó In a frankly worded email, Rowan County Manager Gary Page said the Salisbury interim city manager and City Council ětotally missed the pointî regarding 911 center consolidation.
City Council expressed concern Tuesday afternoon about the countyís apparent rush to consolidate and criticized its fire dispatching and animal control service.
ěI stated in the letter that consolidation would take time, and I am disgusted with the ill-informed comments in todayís Post,î Page wrote the next morning to Interim City Manager Doug Paris.
On Sept. 20, Page asked Paris in a letter whether the county should build its new 911 center building to accommodate city telecommunications staff. He asked for the city to acknowledge interest within 30 days.
Paris agreed but said the city was not committing to consolidation. County commissioners then approved a building design Monday that included space for city staff.
But City Council balked at the request Tuesday. Paris and council members said they didnít want to rush a decision, and Mayor Pro Tem Maggie Blackwell called it a ěfalse deadline.î
In his letter to Paris, Page said consolidating all 911 service under county management would save Salisbury $400,000 annually, but it might take years before that can happen.
In the meantime, the two offices could co-locate.
ěAll I asked is, ëDo you want to be in the building so I can plan for it?íî Page said.
He and commissioners feel ěthe county should be in charge of emergency communications, because itís the right thing to do,î Page said.
On Tuesday, Paris said state funding is available for a comprehensive 911 consolidation study, which City Council agreed to pursue.
But Page said he has found no grant that would pay for such a study, and he invited the city to conduct its own.
Last year, Page said, the county offered to pay for a joint needs assessment study for 911 equipment if it also looked at consolidation. The city declined and paid its own $20,000 share.
John Sofley, assistant city manager, said he turned down Pageís offer because the assessment wasnít broad enough to incorporate the larger issue of consolidation.
ěA consolidation feasibility study is an entirely different animal,î Paris said.
When consultants recommended 911 consolidation in the final draft of their study, Sofley had that portion removed, Page said.
Again, Sofley agreed. He said he removed the recommendation because it wasnít supported by the research and public input that would come from a comprehensive study.
ěYou could say it was slipped in,î Paris said.
Page said the county is following the recommendations of the needs assessment study, which said the county has outgrown its current 911 center and needs a new building, not a renovation. Taxpayers agreed to $12 million borrowed over 10 years for 911 communications needs, Page said, and the county will come in $2 million under budget even with the new building.
The county is under a 14-month deadline to buy updated radios and equipment as required by the state, and it doesnít make sense to install new equipment in the old building, Page said.
ěI donít have time to start over, and my financing will be closed this December,î he wrote in the email.
Page told the Post he didnít give the city a deadline, just a time limit for changing the new 911 centerís design.
In addition, City Council voted Tuesday to institute service level agreements with the county for animal control and fire dispatch services.
They said they want to set formal expectations for the level of these services, which Paris and council members said has declined since they were consolidated.
Page said this is the first time heís heard city officials say they werenít satisfied with animal control.
ěIím disappointed to have to read comments about complaints from elected officials in the newspaper,î he said. ěIf they had these issues, they should have told their staff to contact our staff.î
Page said he heard no complaints from the city about fire dispatch until two weeks ago, when he discussed the possibility of consolidation with Paris, Telecommunications Director Rob Robinson, Salisbury Police Chief Rory Collins and Salisbury Fire Chief Bob Parnell.
ěChief Parnell did bring up that he wasnít satisfied with our level of service for Salisbury Fire,î Page said. ěI talked to Rob about looking at whatever it would take to bring it up to a level to make them happy.î
He said that could include hiring one or two more dispatchers if needed. The county is currently operating with five at one time, and the state recommends seven.
Paris said he asked Page to dedicate one dispatcher for Salisbury fire, but Page declined. Page said itís possible that just putting all dispatchers in the same building could reduce response time.
ěAs for service level agreements, since you donít pay us any money, there wonít be any,î Page wrote in the email. ěIf you want to take back animal control or fire dispatch duties at your cost, thatís your call.î
Pageís email surprised Paris, who said the city and county might qualify to fund a consolidated 911 center entirely with state grants if they determine the project would improve 911 services.
ěThis would prevent needing to use $1.2 million in tax money to build the building under the current proposal,î Paris wrote to Page.
The N.C. 911 Board issues the consolidation grants with money from 911 surcharges and last week awarded $15 million to Burke County and Rockingham.
ěSince our citizens have already paid into this fund from their phone bill, it would make sense to tap it,î Paris wrote.
Considering City Councilís unanimous action, Paris said he expected Page to talk with him about launching a feasibility study, as well as animal control and 911 fire dispatch services.
ěI would think the county would at least be willing to sit down and discuss this, and I am disappointed in their response,î Paris said in an email to City Council. ěI would hope the county would be concerned about feedback on their services and responsive in addressing those concerns.î
Salisbury residents pay county taxes in addition to the 911 surcharge that funds the fire dispatch and animal control, he said.
Merging 911 services would give the county access to state funds for equipment and to build a back-up facility. But Paris questioned constructing a back-up and outfitting it with equipment that would sit idle unless catastrophe struck, when the cityís 911 center in the Police Department could serve as back-up.
If the city becomes the back-up, then Salisbury qualifies for the state 911 funds to buy equipment.
The city and county have had an at-times rocky relationship. Paris said the two governments approach things differently.
ěWe run a more corporate-style government,î he said.
The city doesnít make big decisions quickly, sets long-term goals and works in teams, he said.
ěWeíve had success in that,î he said. ěRowan County may operate a bit differently, and we may have a clash of two cultures, two government cultures.î
Although City Councilís action may have had a chilling effect on city-county relations, Council members were right to bring up their dissatisfaction, Paris said.
While he praised employees in the departments, Paris said both animal control and fire dispatch are underfunded and understaffed.
Council members were considering previous service mergers with the county, ěand they were recalling feedback that they had received from citizens,î he said
Thatís appropriate and necessary, Paris said.
ěIn the business world, if someone is not providing you with good service currently, do you want to give them more?î Paris said.
Contact reporter Karissa Minn at 704-797-4222 and reporter Emily Ford at 704-797-4264.

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