By Ellen Thompson/Havre Daily Newsemail@example.com
Hill County Sheriff Greg Szudera on Tuesday offered the Havre Police Department the option of operating the new enhanced-911 dispatch center if the city will agree to do so at the Hill County Detention Center.
Police Chief Mike Barthel said he still thinks the police station is a better location for the dispatch center.
Szudera made the offer at a meeting Tuesday afternoon of the joint city-county e-911 committe. For a month, city and county representatives have clashed over the question of whether to locate the new dispatch center at the Havre Police Department or at the Hill County Detention Center.
The committee agreed to make that decision, as well as decisions on whether to consolidate dispatch and whether to join a state enhanced-911 plan, at its next meeting Jan. 11.
The debate began nearly five years ago when Hill County began to plan to provide enhanced-911 service. E-911 allows dispatchers to see the exact location of a caller.
Two years ago the committee voted to locate the e-911 dispatch center at the Havre Police Department once the service was available. A new cost estimate last month prompted the committee to reconsider.
A representative from CML Microcircuits Inc., the company the state is contracting with to provide hardware for e-911, estimated the city could be ready for e-911 after upgrades costing $100,000 to $150,000. CML said the sheriff's dispatch center at the detention center needed only $30,000 in upgrades to provide e-911 service.
In a meeting full of disagreements, all agreed that the committee was moving backward on the question.
"I feel like we're going full circle here," Havre Fire Chief David Sheppard said. "Now all the sudden we're trying to change horses midstream. Personally, I think we're back to square one."
Barthel said the majority of a growing 911 call load, nearly 70 percent, gets routed from the 911 dispatch center at the jail to the city. The overall number of calls for service is more than 20,000 so far this year, he added.
When the CML representative made his assessment, the city facility was not as well-equipped as the county's, Barthel said. Because of a private donation, the city has since made almost all the necessary changes.
John and Darlene Sharp purchased a $76,900 radio console for the city in November. This month, the couple purchased better furniture. A $23,000 gift of furniture includes movable work stations for dispatchers, Barthel said. Both the radio console and the furniture can be installed by the end of January. Barthel said the last bit of work, electrical grounding, can be done for a much lower cost than CML estimated by using city employees.
Szudera said local taxpayers have already paid to provide those items at the county.
He said taxpayers could save $40,000 a year in salaries by consolidating dispatch at the jail.
The sheriff then offered Barthel the option of running dispatch, but using the detention center for it.
That solution would not account for walk-in traffic at the police station, Barthel said. He said many city residents do not have a phone and file complaints in person. He said people sometimes walk in and ask for directions to the sheriff's office or detention center.
Szudera suggested the city hire a receptionist for after business hours.
Barthel said the cost might be too high for that. He also said having two e-911 dispatch centers would be better than one. He noted that the state e-911 plan requires each primary dispatch center to name two backup dispatch facilities that could field 911 calls and dispatch in the case of an emergency.
Hill County sanitarian Clay Vincent said the state plan doesn't require that the backup facility be in the county.
"We could route it to Great Falls; we could route it to Timbuktu," Vincent said.
"One 911 center should be able to handle a county of 17,000 people," County Commissioner Pat Conway said.
Audience member Robert Kaul said construction of the new jail was sold to the taxpayers, who eventually approved a $4 million bond for the project, with the understanding that an upgraded dispatch center would be housed in the building. Kaul said he made presentations on behalf of the county to encourage voters to approve the bond issue.
"I personally take this as a slap in the face," he said. "If it's going to be a turf war as to where it goes, take it away from both" and put it in the hands of the 911 committee.
Former assistant police chief Mark Stolen said the needs of the city and the county have changed since the jail was built in 1999.
Head county dispatcher Ginny Marden also spoke up from the audience. She asked Barthel, "In 10 years, when you need to purchase (new) equipment, are the Sharps going to pay for that too?"
Barthel answered that 911 funds that accumulate from 50-cent monthly charges on each of 14,000 phone lines in the county can be saved and used toward equipment upgrades.
On the longstanding question of whether to join the state's e-911 service or go it alone, the committee set a final deadline to decide.
The state has until Jan. 5 to come to the committee with a proposal for e-911. If it meets the deadline, the board will vote Jan. 11. If the state misses the deadline, the committee will chose among the current competitors for Hill County's business, Qwest and CenturyTel, at a higher cost than what the state has so far estimated for its plan.
Committee members said the state has missed previous deadlines for offering e-911, which has delayed installation of the service in Hill County.