County Unsure of Costs for Changes to 911

The Barnes County 911 system, or who will run it has been a weighty issue for city and county officials, but making the change from city to county control should not involve a lot of costs, according to County Commissioner Eldred Knutson. Last week, Barnes County commissioners voted 3-2 to take control of 911 operations, against the Valley City City Commission's wishes.

According to Knutson, costs will be minimal because most of the changes will involve moving equipment from one room to another in the same building. Currently, the county leases space in the Law Enforcement Center for the sheriff's department, but it also has vacant office space in the same building that the sheriff's department isn't using, that is where the 911 system will be moved to.

"It will not be moved to the sheriff's department," said Knutson. "It will be in a neutral place."

The reason for keeping 911 in a neutral location, according to Knutson, is that it is not for just the sheriff's department or the police. Emergency units including city and rural fire departments, ambulance, and the hospital all depend on the Barnes County 911 system, not just law enforcement.

In the past, the county had operational control of the 911 system, as set forth by state law. But it contracted out day-to-day operations to the Valley City Police Department. Currently, Police Chief Fred Thompson oversees dispatch, including six 911 operators (one position of which is unfilled at press time), who cost the city and county an average of $40,000 each per year. Currently, the city pays for 2-1/2 or about $100,000 per year, the county pays for two at a cost of $80,000 and a 911 fund, (made up of a $1 tax residents pay on their phone bills) pays the remainder.

At last week's meeting, however, the county board passed a proposal that, since the call ratio is about 2:1 (calls for the city:county to 911), that the same ratio should apply to who pays for the system. As of January 1, 2013 the payment ratio will be 2:1 city to county and the 911 fund will pay the remainder. According to County Commissioner Cindy Schwehr, the 911 fund has a surplus now that should be able to cover added costs. If the time should ever arise when the 911 fund is insufficient, then county residents would need to vote to raise that tax.

Knutson also thought the person running the 911 center should be impartial, a thought that was echoed by Schwehr at a recent meeting.

"Not that there's anything wrong with either one of them (the Sheriff or the Police Chief); I just think that it becomes too much of a possession of that department," said Schwehr.

Another reason Knutson suggested the change is that he thought dispatchers were spending too much time working on city police administrative duties.

"They need to concentrate on dispatching or 911 administrative duties," said Knutson.

Eventually, the county will need to hire a 911 coordinator to perform the administrative duties of the system in order to comply with the N.D. Century code, said Knutson. That coordinator would be responsible for overseeing day-to-day operations, writing job descriptions, interviewing and recommending prospects, grant writing, and other administrative duties as well as filling in for dispatchers when needed. Additional costs for a 911 co-ordinator should be about $60,000 per year.

Gov. Jack Dalrymple set a mid-2013 deadline for upgrading the current 911 system to digital "Next Generation" 911. The new system will ensure uniformity for 911 operations throughout the state, and should be more secure during emergencies such as tornadoes or other times when power is out, said Knutson. Now, when a call center is down, calls are routed to state radio. The new system will be housed in a secure location to help alleviate this.

Costs for converting to digital 911 are still unknown, said Knutson. The county is looking into a joint powers agreement with Stutsman and Richland counties to help alleviate costs. Also, the North Dakota Association of Counties has hired a consultant who will be working on finding the best buys in equipment and the most cost-effective way of linking the state's counties together.