911, central dispatch equipment sits idle over funding dispute

Wednesday, April 21, 2004

State-of-the-art 911 and central dispatching equipment that was installed at the county courthouse will continue to gather dust because of funding problems.

The center was set up using "jail" tax funds, then halted after questions arose regarding use of those funds.

Dispatching continues at the county jail, where dispatchers double as jailers despite a lawsuit filed by the state.

County Judge Mike Botelho said dispatching will likely continue at the jail for another year, until the staff moves over to the new jail facility.

Botelho made this statement when meeting with the Public Safety Communications Center 911 Oversite Committee (PSCC) on Wednesday.

He brought along County Treasurer Cindy Collins, who told the committee that revenue from the 911 telephone surcharge and other miscellaneous sources was barely enough to cover current expenses.

Handing out a spreadsheet, Collins said, "It's obvious from this, they can spend what we take in."

Botelho suggested that the committee suspend operations until sometime in September or October, when budgets for the year ahead are drafted.

"There's not a lot of money to do anything," he said. "Every dollar that comes in pays for current operations. I suggest we wait until fall when funding becomes more clear."

He said he'll have a better idea of jail construction costs at that time.

In the meantime, he suggested that the committee come up with a plan for operation, whether it be 911 dispatching, or central dispatching, which includes all fire, medical and 911 emergency calls, plus law enforcement traffic.

"I need you to determine how you want to operate and then we'll figure out how to budget it."

Botelho was well aware that there is no provision for dispatching at the new jail facility.

He said the jail is expected to be completed in December, but it could be May, 2005, before staff moves in, including current dispatchers/jailers.

"That gives us a little more time," he said.

Not everyone was happy with the situation, including Jack Keith, who has worked four years to set up a central dispatch system. Keith said he became involved because of dispatching problems, especially with medical emergencies.

"I don't know if we can continue to exist as is," he said, alluding to a less than perfect dispatching system on the eastern side of the county. "We have to have something, for the good of the county."

Committee chairman Patti Tetu mentioned that a lot of effort had been expended to get the central dispatch center operational.

State-of-the-art dispatching equipment was purchased, towers installed and improved communications developed with the use of "jail" tax funds that Attorney General Mark Pryor's office approved when handing down an opinion stating that "jail" tax money could be used for the central dispatch project.

However, another opinion issued by Pryor's replacement, Mike Beebe, differed, stating that "jail" tax funds could not be used for 911 dispatching.

Justice of the Peace Jim Wheeler said if it hadn't been for the latest attorney general opinion, "we would have been up and operational by now."

Voters approved a half-cent sales tax in 2000 believing that was designated to "construct and equip a jail facility and sheriff's department and to be used to operate the jail and central dispatch office."

"I know the jail tax makes reference to dispatch," said Botelho, "but it's premature to say there's going to be any money. The jail comes first."

New committee members were introduced during the meeting, including Ken Drezinski, Morris Pate and Justice of the Peace Larry Fry.

Fry resigned from the commission, saying he had received a letter with a legal opinion stating that he and his wife, Suellyn Fry, secretary for the commission, couldn't serve on the same commission.

He formally submitted his resignation saying he preferred that Suellyn remain.

"It seems like lawyers are more involved than dispatchers," he quipped.

Respond to this story

Posting a comment requires free registration: