Debate on 911 center continues

Published 12:00 am Monday, October 17, 2011

By Emily Ford
SALISBURY ó First the county wanted the city to move in.
Now, the city wants the county to move in.
In a two-page letter to Rowan County Manager Gary Page, Interim City Manager Doug Paris invites the county to temporarily move its 911 call center into the Salisbury Police Department rent-free. Paris asked Page to discuss the cityís offer with the Rowan County Board of Commissioners Monday night, but the county board made no decision at its meeting.
The county plans to build a new 911 telecommunications center on Old Concord Road. On Monday, commissioners approved architectís renderings of the $1.7 million building, including space for the city.
ěDelaying our plans right now would be a pretty bad direction at the moment,î said Chad Mitchell, chairman of the Board of Commissioners, in a phone interview Monday.
While the cityís offer was made in good faith, Mitchell said, the county would risk losing $590,000 in user fees from the stateís 911 reserve fund if commissioners stopped the building process. The funding expires in June, he said.
At the commissionersí meeting, Mitchell said the city has asked the county to reserve four new dispatcher positions to cover Salisbury calls.
The city also is asking that the new radios for front-line firefighters are submersible in water to the highest standards. The county is paying to upgrade emergency radio equipment in order to meet state requirements.
ěNeither of those two items are conditions placed on consolidation; they just wanted us to look at those issues,î Mitchell said.
Rob Robinson, the county telecommunications director, said Monday that the planned upgrade is to ělevel oneî submersible radios. An upgrade to ědelta two,î which can better handle being dunked in water from fire hoses and sprinklers, would cost about $1,000 to $1,200 more per radio.
ěWeíre buying 600 radios,î Robinson said. ěThatís a substantial amount of money.î
He said Salisbury bought its own delta two equipment after two firefighters died in the 2008 Salisbury Millwork fire. Some of the cityís radios were found to have water damage.
The top-level equipment is not in the project budget, Robinson said, but the county could choose to spend more or the city could pay for the difference.
Parisí proposal for the county to move into the Police Department is the latest development in an ongoing dispute between Paris and Page over 911 dispatch consolidation. The city dispatches 911 calls for the Salisbury Police Department. The county dispatches all other 911 calls.
The two managers disagree over whether Page gave the city a 30-day deadline to co-locate 911 services, how to spend $1.2 million in taxpayer dollars from the 2009 public safety bond referendum and whether to study 911 consolidation.
Page said the cityís offer to move into the police department comes too late in the process. The county has been working on a plan for two years to update 911 equipment, towers and the building, he said.
ěI canít justify not moving forward,î he said.
In the referendum, the county told taxpayers it would spend $6 million on a jail annex and $12 million on the emergency upgrades.
The county wanted to consolidate 911 services several years ago but, until recently, saw no indication the city would agree, Page said. The county still has the door open to the city to move into the new 911 center, whether the services merge or not, he said.
ěThere are still ways that we can save and work together,î he said.
Page said Parisí offer would require the city and county to agree on every issue, including potentially contentious items like service agreements and staffing levels.
ěI donít think we could agree on everything from this point forward,î Page said.
Thereís no guarantee the city would agree to consolidation after completing a lengthy study, Page and Mitchell said. Then the county would have lost the state money, missed deadlines and still not have a new building, they said.
ěI started working on this shortly after I arrived 31/2 years ago,î Page said. ěWe have timed this out.î
Page recently ran several advertisements in the Salisbury Post featuring a Sept. 20 letter he wrote to Paris, which Page said had been twisted at the Oct. 4 City Council meeting. Paris did not show Pageís letter to council members before their meeting.
Late Friday afternoon, the city issued a press release detailing Parisí letter and offer to Page. The release and letter also ran on the cityís Facebook page.
Paris called the past two weeks ěchallengingî and said he wants to ěmove the 911 dispatch discussions in a positive direction for all Rowan County citizens.î
ěWhile I have full faith in your ability to solve this issue with me, at this time I am requesting that we form a study group to move this item forward,î Paris wrote to Page, suggesting the group include both of them, as well as elected officials.
The city wants the county to join in a lengthy 911 consolidation feasibility study. Page has said the county previously offered to study the issue and the city declined, and now Rowan County is up against a federal deadline for new equipment and must move forward with the recommended new building.
The Rowan County Board of Commissioners voted unanimously Oct. 3 to include free space for the city in the new 911 telecommunications center, planned for Old Concord Road. If the city moves in, the county could apply for state 911 funds to build a back-up 911 center.
City Council voted unanimously Oct. 4 to pursue a consolidation study, which would show whether merging 911 dispatch would improve the service but the study could take six months. If the county participates, the state could fund not only the study but the new 911 building.
Page has said the county is outgrowing its 911 center in the Sheriffís Office. Paris argues if Page moves the center into the Police Department, which has space available on the second floor, the county can put the new building on hold and join the city in the study.
Paris said the scenario ěwould allow a real life test of the co-location concept and provide valuable experience and feedback before capital expenditures are madeî and ěallow the $1.2 million in tax funds to be utilized for other public safety radio needs or roll off the books early.î
Karissa Minn contributed to this story.
Contact reporter Emily Ford at 704-797-4264.