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Funding formula sticking point for dispatch center

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Local fire departments are concerned they might have to reduce staff in order to help pay for the yearly costs for a single county emergency dispatch center.

Taxpayers also could face tax increases if local governments have to raise rates to pay for the service, local officials said.

Johnson County Council members want to have one dispatch center located in the sheriff’s office basement and are asking each city, town and fire district to pay part of the annual operating costs based on the population those groups serve.

The county is trying to meet a Jan. 1, 2015, deadline to combine the county’s five 911 dispatch centers run by the sheriff’s office and police departments in Franklin, Greenwood, New Whiteland and Edinburgh. The four departments that have a dispatch center will save money each year by not having to maintain their own staff and offices, according to a report from financial firm H.J. Umbaugh and Associates.

But other local governments will be faced with a new annual expense, ranging from $10,000 for Trafalgar police to about $300,000 for the White River Township Fire Department.

The new expense presents a challenge for those agencies.

“It is absolutely going to be detrimental to our budget to pay out $130,000. There are only two ways around it. The state allows us to raise our levy, or we’re going to have to cut our level of service. I’m actually going to have to take people off of the streets,” Bargersville Fire Chief Jason Ramey said.

The county is asking for each agency to help pay for dispatching costs estimated at about $3.5 million per year, since the county receives only about $1.6 million per year from 911 fees that are charged to cellphone and landline phone bills.

Those annual costs will include yearly payments on a $2.6 million loan, which will be needed to remodel the sheriff’s office basement and buy equipment, $1.9 million for staff salaries and benefits, $1.1 million in operating expenses such as utilities, maintenance and equipment, and $300,000 to be set aside in savings, according to the Umbaugh report.

The council is asking local governments and fire departments to pay based on the population they serve, but that method puts additional burden on fire departments and may not be representative of each agency’s use, county 911 coordinator Mike Watkins said.

Watkins said that of all 911 calls, about 85 percent are for police, while only 15 percent are for fire departments. If each agency pays by population, fire districts would end up paying about 32 percent of the total contributions. If the amount were based on 911 calls, the amount contributed by fire districts would drop to about 5 percent of the total cost, the Umbaugh report said.

Council members favored population over call volumes since 911 numbers could vary from year to year, while population would be more stable.

When figured by population, each agency would end up paying about $10 per person in their coverage area for 911 service.

For White River Township, that is about $300,000 per year in new expenses. Currently the department pays nothing toward dispatching services, which are handled by Greenwood.

White River Township Fire Chief Jeremy Pell, who also is chairman of the county’s 911 board, believes basing payments on population is the right decision, but he doesn’t know how his district will be able to find a way to pay for the new yearly bill.

“I think it’s very reasonable for all the agencies to pitch in. But it’s going to be a challenge, because no one is running on a surplus,” Pell said.

The Bargersville Fire Department would be expected to pay $130,000 annually, and Ramey said there is no way to make that payment out of the current budget. Tax increases would be a possibility. But if the state doesn’t allow the fire district to increase its tax levy enough, he’ll have to cut back service by reducing staff.

“To me, it’s putting it back on the districts to ask for tax increases. I just hope the public understands that when we ask for this,” Ramey said.

Basing payments on population also causes some county residents to be counted twice. For example, a homeowner in Greenwood is covered by the city’s police and fire departments and is counted one time. But Bargersville residents would be counted twice since the town provides police service, but the fire district provides fire coverage, Watkins said. The town and the fire district do not have the same borders.

The Umbaugh report lists the total population covered by county agencies as 205,000, about 65,000 more than actually reside here.

Local officials will have to discuss those issues and decide whether basing payments on population is best or if they’d like to consider a different formula, Watkins said. Council members made the preliminary decision to charge by population before the report from Umbaugh was completed.

“A lot of the people are wanting to go with the population model, but we wanted to make sure we have the information to decide the best idea to go forward. It’s just kind of a jumping-off point for us to start and look at all options,” Watkins said.

Getting local leaders to agree, especially when new expenses may be involved, could be a challenge, Pell said. He hopes everyone understands the need to meet the state’s deadline.

The 911 board will meet next week with county, city, town, police and fire officials to discuss the consolidation plans and potential costs in an effort to start forming agreements on funding and operations, Watkins said.

Local leaders also will have to answer questions about what will happen to dispatchers currently employed by the cities and towns after consolidation. Having each dispatcher become a county employee could require pay cuts, but local governments also could continue to employ and pay dispatchers, officials said.

Each agency will need to agree to the terms in order for the consolidation to occur.

The decision will need to be made before the end of the year in order to meet the state deadline, Watkins said. The renovation of the sheriff’s office basement will take 10 to 12 months to complete.

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