CIRCLEVILLE - A proposal from the Pickaway County Commissioners for consolidation of the 911 emergency system met with questions and concerns at its first review by city council's Committee of the Whole on Tuesday.
The proposal would combine the city's current Public Safety Answering Point (PSAP) located at the Circleville Police Department and the county's PSAP at the Pickaway County Sheriff's Office under one roof to be administered by a director employed by the Pickaway County Commissioners.
With the three county commissioners and all members of city council in attendance, Brian Stewart, president of the Board of County Commissioners, introduced the 17-page proposal as an efficient and cost-saving plan to consolidate the two separate systems while upgrading the technology to be "Next Gen 911" capable, allowing digital information like photos, videos and text messages to be processed through the network.
As presented, the proposal would remove the PSAP at the Pickaway County Sheriff's Office and consolidate the two systems into one to be located at the Circleville Police Department on East Franklin Street under the control of the Pickaway County Commissioners.
Employees of the consolidated PSAP would be county employees, and operation of the center would be managed on-site by a full-time PSAP director/telecommunicator who would be hired by and report to the county commissioners. Initially, the proposal calls for one PSAP director, 10 full-time and three part-time telecommunicators (formerly called dispatchers) to handle 911 calls and dispatching responsibilities.
A point of debate during Tuesday's meeting was the proposed cost of a consolidated system as detailed in the commissioners' proposal.
Stewart said upgrading each PSAP separately would cost an estimated $500,000 each for the city and the county. The cost to upgrade a single consolidated PSAP would still be $500,000 but could be split equally between the city and county, resulting in significant savings. The commissioners' proposal also estimates about $100,000 in combined payroll savings between the city and county annually.
Stewart said the county has an E911 fund of about $400,000 that comes from a fee of 25 cents per month on every resident's cell phone bill that is paid to the state and then funneled to the counties based on the number of cell phone users in that county. The fund, he said, brings in about $100,000 per year.
Although most officials in attendance agreed consolidation would be a desired goal, council members Barry Keller and Mike Logan questioned the city's access to those funds if the city chose to upgrade its own system rather than consolidate.
"Currently all E911 funds from the state come to the county alone because only the county PSAP is equipped to handle wireless calls," Stewart said. "Stated simply, we would be inclined to use those to upgrade the county's PSAP. To say that we're going to split those and now equip a second PSAP to remain separate, to us, is going backwards from consolidation, not forwards to consolidation. If there is consolidation that's possible, the E911 funds could be used to update the combined PSAP. If we remain separate, the E911 funds for the county will be used for the county's PSAP."
Council members, along with Gayle Spangler, city auditor, also expressed issues with the idea of removing the city from any authority over the proposed combined PSAP but still requiring the city to help pay for it.
Under the current proposal, the city would be required to help fund the cost of consolidation, as well as contribute annually to the cost of operating the center.
"How that split works out between the county and the city remains to be worked out, but I think something in the neighborhood of a good, fair split is very likely," Stewart said.
"I guess I'm just so confused," Logan said. "You want to put it in our building, and you want us to pay for it. I guess I'm just lost, I don't understand the thinking. We give up our 911, you put it in our building, you're in charge of it and we pay you for it. I'm missing something."
Spangler questioned why the city would be the only other entity to pay such a contribution, which would not be required from the villages and townships that also use the service.
"This county has 25 separate legal entities, from townships to villages to commissioners to the city, and everybody has to have skin in the game," Spangler said. "Then and only then will we have a joint, consolidated 911. If some people pay and some people don't, it will always be friction."
Another point of debate was the idea of housing the proposed consolidated PSAP in a city building under the county's control.
Todd Brady shared his concern that the city would be responsible for half or even more of the costs for operating the combined PSAP and have only one vote on a proposed advisory committee that would represent all stakeholders in the 911 system.
Sister Monica Justinger told Stewart she would like to see other models of consolidated PSAPs that would be more collaborative between the city and county.
David M. Crawford, council president, asked Stewart if the plan could be modified to reflect a more mutual partnership between the two entities.
"If it's going to be in our facility and our building and we're paying the county an annual fee for the privilege to have you there, we'd like to have a little say in it," Crawford said.
Stewart said the commissioners are willing to discuss other options, but they believe the proposal as submitted provides equitable trade-offs for both sides in the agreement, including the county commissioners taking on liability for any potential litigation involving operation of the 911 system.
Council members also addressed concerns about the size of the city's facility compared to the larger area currently available at the Pickaway County Sheriff's Office.
Mayor Don McIlroy expressed his disappointment that the city and county continue to be discussed as separate entities in these particular negotiations.
"The city of Circleville is part of the county," McIlroy said. "Sometimes we forget this. On page 12 of your proposal, down at the bottom, it talks about the E911 funds and how they can be used. It says the county will use its own E911 funds to cover the cost of its own PSAP upgrade, but not the city's as well. There's no indication from the county commissioners that the city is part of the county. We're not saying 'the county and Harrison Township Fire Department,' and not 'the county and Scioto Township.' We're saying 'the county and the city of Circleville.' We continue to have this dialogue. There are 13,000 people in the city of Circleville who are contributing to those funds."
McIlroy also expressed his belief that ongoing negotiations should be handled between the county commissioners and the city's administration before being brought to council for review.
The last to speak at Tuesday's meeting was Sheriff Robert Radcliff, who expressed his concerns to council that there is still a dispute about who is responsible for operating a consolidated 911 center and dispatching after the commissioners presented him with a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) that he declined to sign without legal representation.
"As you read through that information, you'll see why I didn't sign the MOU," Radcliff said. "Without legal advice, which I had requested and was denied, I could not determine if I would be signing away my authority."
Radcliff said he believes his responsibility is outlined in a section of the Ohio Revised Code that states in a county with a population of under 750,000, the sheriff is responsible for public safety communications.
The county commissioners point to a different section of the ORC that states a PSAP shall be operated by a subdivision or regional council of governments and directly dispatches emergency service providers.
"I think the biggest issue I have is that there's a difference between 911 and dispatching, and between 911 and non-911," Radcliff said. "Everybody reflects that 911 is all-inclusive, but there's only a certain percentage of calls that come into either the city's communications center or our communications center that are actually 911 calls."
Radcliff also addressed concerns about the size of the proposed call center at the city police department, as well as concerns that additional staff might not be immediately available to help in emergencies as they are 24/7 at the sheriff's office.
Crawford asked Radcliff what his proposal for consolidation would be, and Radcliff replied there needs to be answers to the issues of interpretation of the Ohio Revised Code.
He also shared his belief that a consolidated center should be located at the sheriff's office, which was built through taxpayer money with the ability for expansion if necessary.
A communications center at the sheriff's office, he said, instead of at the city police station would also eliminate the current proposal's need to take the city's system out of operation for a time while renovations were being completed.
"I think there are a lot of options, a lot more options on the table to put a communications center at the sheriff's office," Radcliff said. "I believe putting it in the sheriff's office is a better option because I think we'll be spending a lot more money if we put it in a smaller room than the one we currently have."
Crawford said he would speak with McIlroy about continuing discussions between the city's administration and the county commissioners. He said the issue has become much more complicated than expected when discussions were initiated two years ago, but the proposal gives them something to work with.
"If there's anything the commissioners want to amend on that proposal before we start talking about it further, feel free to do so," Crawford said. "I'll talk to the mayor to see if he wants to proceed as he has been... but I would also like to see the sheriff and county commissioners try to work together, too."
The full video of the Committee of the Whole meeting can be found on the CGTV web site at www.circlevilletv.com.