Some commissioners wanted to move forward immediately, but after opinions ranged from one end to the other, the Effingham City Council agreed to hold off moving forward with a feasibility study to consolidate city and county 911 dispatch centers.
However, council members didn’t put off an an agreement Tuesday because they aren’t ready to move forward. They want to make sure that before they finance a $20,000 to $120,000 study, the 911 task force is ready to make a cohesive recommendation to the council.
“We formed that task force for a purpose,” Mayor Merv Gillenwater said, who tried to smooth over the zealous discussion among Commissioners Brian Milleville, Matt Hirtzel and Don Althoff, who were anxiously ready for the council to take the lead in the feasibility study.
“We did kind of do that though,” Milleville responded to Gillenwater, adding that task force members went to their respective boards to report the committee’s consensus, which was to move forward.
Milleville and Althoff are on the 911 task force, created in July to discuss whether the separate Public Service Answering Points located at the Effingham Police Department and Effingham County Sheriff’s Office should merge and what direction the entities should take if consolidation is feasible. County board members and lead telecommunicators are also on the task force.
At Tuesday’s council meeting, no other committee members were present, which was Gillenwater’s concern.
“My concern is that I want to make sure the county’s ready to move forward. And I’m not saying we’re doing this in vain,” Gillenwater said, adding he wants to make sure the issue that drove a wedge between the city and county approximately 15 years ago doesn’t go any deeper.
“I don’t want to pull us apart again. Maybe bring the committee or other board representatives. I don’t want to look like the city’s stirring the pot,” Gillenwater said, stressing he wants everyone on board before making a decision, especially if a major move requires voter approval.
“The voters will have to be involved at some point. And if we choose sides, it will remain as is because voters want to vote for change. We need to be in support of the group. We really need all three,” Gillenwater said, referring to the third party as the Effingham County 911 Board, which unanimously declined to participate in the task force.
But Milleville felt like the city needed to step up to the plate.
“We said go, and then the county tabled theirs and here we are. Do we have the stomach to go it alone? We’ve got to make some sort of progress,” Milleville replied, referring to the county board holding off on the study.
At a county board meeting Tuesday, members didn’t want to move forward with a study because of expected new regulations in two to five years mandating new equipment for 911 centers.
Milleville admitted the new mandates will require an upgrade, but believes the service is being duplicated with two centers, especially in an area the size of the county. The next generation of 911 equipment will allow employees to read text messages and view videos, so the cost is substantial, Milleville said.
“We need to consider it won’t happen overnight. We have to be diligent. This is a long process, so let’s make sure we do it right,” Milleville said.
Althoff expressed his concern with lack of participation from the 911 board and how local government is duplicating itself with two call centers.
“The 911 board should’ve come together and worked with us. They’re stagnant. They haven’t done anything to help themselves grow,” Althoff said, adding only one call center should’ve been established before 911 went online in 2000.
Hirtzel was dismayed at city and county having separate 911 centers and was in favor of doing the study, but only if it would answer specific questions.
“Here we are 11 years later and it’s so confusing and so frustrating,” Hirtzel said, referring to the political background of how the city and county got separate centers and why it seemed logical to provide different centers in the first place.
Hirtzel was frustrated with the idea of two centers, and admitted he didn’t want a study if it was going to answer what he already knew.
“I don’t want a study. I have no idea how you can tell me how two centers is better than one. It doesn’t make sense to the taxpayer and it doesn’t make sense to me. I don’t want to fund a study to prove what we already know,” Hirtzel said, asking Althoff if studies have been conducted in other communities with more than one dispatch center.
“There are only two double systems in the state of Illinois,” Althoff replied, adding the other one is in the northern part of the state.
Hirtzel felt like it was a bad move to keep the centers as is, but wanted to move forward with a study if the county agrees.
“But I don’t know if the county’s going to support it and pay for what we already know,” Hirtzel said.
City Administrator Jim Arndt said the scope of services would be defined in the proposal to answer questions, such as how many employees will be needed, where the new call center will be located or how many employees should be on duty.
Hirtzel said he’s in favor of a study that can answer real questions.
“We need to look at hard data whether or not to consolidate 911. This has been talked about a long time. How’d we get here? And why do we have two of them?” Hirtzel said, who was facetiously astounded at the current makeup of the 911 system.
“It’s the only thing we can do to put this thing to rest,” he added, referring to a study that will give hard data and finally end the political power play.
Commissioner Alan Harris, who stayed out of most of the discussion, asked Althoff why change was needed to a system that’s worked so long.
“Doesn’t the 911 system work well? What are you trying to fix?,” Harris asked.
Althoff said that after doing research, a community this size doesn’t warrant two call centers. If the city has been continually trying to save money — going as far as offering early retirement a few years ago — why keep allowing government to duplicate itself, Althoff said to Harris.
“So we should just roll the dice? I think we have to decide if we can afford to pay for something that may or may not save money,” Harris said.
Milleville said sometimes entities have to spend money to make money, referring to starting up a business.
“Well it’s pretty easy to gamble your money. It’s harder to gamble someone else’s,” Harris replied.
The council made no formal decision, but agreed to ask the task force to formally present its recommendation at the next council meeting Tuesday, Feb. 7.
Samantha Newburn may be reached at 217-347-7151 ext. 131 or firstname.lastname@example.org.