County, city managers caught in war of words

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, October 11, 2011

By Emily Ford
SALISBURY — Neither the city nor county manager appear ready to drop a dispute over a proposed merger of Rowan County and Salisbury’s 911 call centers.
Gary Page, the county manager, says the issue is so misunderstood, he will take out an ad in the Post Wednesday and Friday. Page said he will run the complete text of a letter he wrote Sept. 20, so people can see he wasn’t pressuring the city to let the him take over 911 dispatch for Salisbury Police.
Doug Paris, the interim city manger, says Page’s Sept. 20 letter and other correspondence amounted to a power play to force Paris to agree to 911 consolidation within 30 days.
The city wants to do a six-month feasibility study to qualify for state grants to build the center, potentially saving $1.2 million in taxpayer dollars. Page said he offered to study consolidation before and the city turned him down, and now he’s up against a 14-month federal deadline to have all 911 equipment and towers upgraded.
Page has been leveraging his position as a senior manager against Paris’ new status as an interim manager, Paris said. And Page is trying to take advantage of the city’s upcoming municipal election, Paris said.
“I get on the job and they give me a 30-day ultimatum?” Paris said in an email to the Post.
Nothing could be further from the truth, Page said.
Page said he never set a deadline or gave the city an ultimatum. Instead, Page said, he was simply asking Paris to let him know within 30 days if the city wanted space in the county’s new 911 building for future use, whether consolidated or under separate management.
The county had reached the schematic design phase of the project, Page said, and he needed to gauge the city’s interest as architects planned placement of offices, 911 consoles, bathrooms and more.
Page, who offered to pay the additional $170,000 to plan for the city’s inclusion in the building, said he thought he was extending an olive branch to the city with the letter.
Now, he said, he wishes he’d never written it.
When discussing proposed 911 consolidation on Tuesday, City Council criticized other services the county has consolidated — animal control and fire dispatch. Both have suffered since the county took over, council members said.
“By me sending the letter, I struck a chord with somebody,” Page said. “And now I’ve got employees who have to continue to answer animal control calls in the city limits and dispatchers who have read that they do such a poor job.”
Paris said he met with City Council members individually before Tuesday’s meeting to brief them on Page’s 30-day deadline but never showed them the letter.
There was no need, he said, because the letter and an accompanying email from Page were an ultimatum.
“It was as clear as day to me that’s what it was,” he said.
Page’s email with the Sept. 20 letter attachment reads:
“Doug, Attached you’ll find a letter requesting notification of your interest in consolidation of City/County dispatchers in the new 911 Center, as discussed last week. Also, I’ve made mention of future opportunities for further consolidation between the City and County. Please let me know of your decision within 30 days.”
Page said the email is another example of him asking Paris for interest, not a commitment.
In the letter, Page writes, “The County would appreciate an acknowledgement of interest within the next 30 days,” and “I know the steps to consolidation that I’ve proposed would require several years of discussion to accomplish.”
Had Paris shown the letter to City Council, Page said, the misunderstanding likely never would have developed.
“He was wrong not to show them the letter,” Page said. “That’s his job.”
Addressed to Paris, the letter was copied to all five county commissioners, the county clerk and county attorney. Page said rather than copying all City Council members as well, he assumed Paris would share it with them.
The letter summed up a meeting Paris and Page had the week before, Page said.
The two met again, after Page sent the letter. Paris said he told Page the city couldn’t make a decision in 30 days and Page apologized for putting him “on the spot.”
“Why would you apologize to me if it’s not a deadline?” Paris said. “It doesn’t pass the smell test.”
Page said he would have had no reason to apologize because he never put pressure on City Council to make a snap decision.
“I was following through on a planning process that we had spent two years on,” he said.
While the county has worked since 2009 to meet new federal mandates on 911 equipment, no elected city official or former City Manager David Treme ever attended the meetings, Page said.
Paris said he can’t be held responsible for what happened before he became interim city manager, and now the city supports consolidation, as long as a feasibility study shows it would improve 911 services.
“There is an offer on the table from Salisbury City Council to move forward on this,” Paris said. “We are ready to work together.”
County commissioners voted to include space for Salisbury in the new 911 building. The next day, City Council voted to pursue a feasibility study and set service measurements for county animal control and fire dispatch services.
Page said he suspected the only way the city could justify not consolidating 911 services, which would save Salisbury $400,000 in salaries, would be to claim the county does a poor job.
“And I was right,” he said. “That’s exactly what they did.”
Page said he’d never heard a complaint from city officials about animal control until he read City Council’s comments in the Post.
The first time he heard complaints about fire dispatch was about two weeks ago when he met with Paris, Fire Chief Bob Parnell and Police Chief Rory Collins.
Since Tuesday’s meeting, the city has sent out emails with complaints about animal control from Collins and Sam Foust, executive director for Salisbury Housing Authority.
Page said the county is looking into the complaints and will do whatever it takes to make the city happy.
Twice since Tuesday, Paris has requested a meeting with Page. Page said he won’t meet with Paris until after his ads run in the Post — with the county commissioners’ blessing and on the county’s dime — so people can read for themselves what he intended.
Contact reporter Emily Ford at 704-797-4264.