Tuesday, January 05, 2010

Will township residents be double-taxed for 911 dispatching?

Most people who live in a township or pay attention to the local media will know that Lucas County is trying to get townships to pay for the cost of road patrols and dispatching from the Sheriff's Department.

This is in spite of voter rejection of recent levies in several townships to cover these costs.

One of the sticking points in the discussions deals with the 911 Levy as approved over several elections by voters.

Originally, this levy was supposed to cover the cost of dispatching. From an October 20, 1996 Blade article, "LEVY PUTS 911 SYSTEM - DESIGNED TO SAVE LIVES - AT RISK 911":

But the $5 million system - which was set up to answer calls with the speed of a computer - is on trial.

Weary of higher taxes and moved by union opposition, voters turned down a 0.9-mill levy in March.

Now, they will decide whether to approve a 0.7-mill tax to keep it alive for the next five years.

The tax would raise $4 million a year to run the system and make improvements.

Those include ``breaking up'' the downtown 911 station into six smaller centers to be scattered across the county to speed response times.

``We're talking about taking 911 to the next level - and bringing it into the next century,'' said Sandy Isenberg, president of the Lucas County commissioners.

But so far, there's no contingency plan to keep the phones ringing at 911 if the levy fails.

If it goes down, there wouldn't be any money to pay the 911 operators and their supervisors past Dec. 31.

``No one's going to be here to answer the phone,'' said Doug Kemp, data manager for 911 .

It is clear from this report that call-takers and dispatchers are covered by the cost of the levy.

From the same article:

Here's a snapshot of what the new levy would do:

* It would bring 911 calls closer to home.

As it now exists, if a frantic Sylvania mother dials 911 for help because her child has fallen down the steps, the call goes to the 911 center at 2144 Monroe St., in Toledo.

Then, the message is sent via computer to a dispatch center in Sylvania. From there, a rescue vehicle is sent to the scene.

Under the new plan, the call would go directly to Sylvania, eliminating the middleman in Toledo, and allowing the local operator to immediately send an ambulance. System officials hope to shave the response time by up to 45 seconds.

``In life-threatening situations, seconds can mean everything,'' said Tom Bodi, director of the 911 system.

This obviously describes dispatching as part of the services provided by the levy.

The 1996 levy included funds for upgrading the equipment, as county officials currently claim as the purpose of the levy. But news reports also show that the funding of the entire system was at risk, including dispatching, if the levy failed.

But just in case there was any doubt, a February 23, 1997 Blade article, "9-1-1 SPELLS QUICK HELP," further clarifies what the system does:

When a call comes in to 911 , an operator obtains necessary information from the caller, decides the priority of the call, then transfers the call by computer to the appropriate emergency dispatch system. Once the local dispatcher receives the emergency request - which takes just seconds after 911 operators obtain the needed information - a police, fire, or rescue crew is sent to respond to the call.

But changes to the system resulted in localized call centers run by the various municipalities. However, as reported in May of 1997, "Each community is to receive about $21,000 annually to help pay for operator salaries...", meaning that levy monies were still paying for dispatching.

In September, 1997, when the suburban call centers went on line, The Blade reported:

The decentralization of the main dispatch center is paid for by a five-year, 0.7-mill levy approved in November.

The levy raises about $4 million annually

Subsequent reports in the paper over the next two years referenced the point that the suburbs took over paying 911 dispatchers in their own communities. But those news stories fail to mention that the county continued to subsidize those salaries with levy money. It's also important to note that the Lucas County Sheriff dispatchers, which service the townships, were NOT part of the decentralization.

In 1999, the Lucas County Commissioners decided to upgrade and expand the Emergency Services Center on Monroe Street to "put Toledo police call takers and Toledo fire department and Lucas County dispatchers under one roof on the same floor."

In 2000, officials began discussions of the levy's renewal scheduled for 2001. Because of a provision in state law, this renewal was treated as a 'new' levy, taxed at the current property values and generating a bit more money as a result. News reports from 2001 show that the levy would be used to operate and maintain the 911 system. The additional funding would go toward a countywide communications system for public safety personnel. That levy was approved by voters.

In 2006, the levy was up for renewal, but officials wanted a replacement levy - the same millage charged against current property values, resulting in more money for the county. As explained at the time, the funds would continue to support the maintenance and operation of the 911 system and pay for enhanced inter-agency communications among first responders. That levy was also approved by the voters.

So what does this really mean? Over the years, the levies have been advertised as funding the call-takers and dispatchers as well as the maintenance and operation of the system. Even when the county decentralized the dispatching to the suburban cities, they subsidized the salaries of the workers. However, the townships continued to receive dispatching through the Sheriff's dispatchers, funded by levy dollars.

But with time comes increased costs in wages and benefits, along with everything else. Through the years, the funding did not keep up with the costs. New equipment, necessary for today's needs, was purchased and had to be maintained. Which is why the county finds itself in a position of asking - rather, demanding - funds from the townships to pay for costs the levy no longer covers because of decisions made by those same county politicians.

The elected officials have known for years that the increased personnel costs they approved with their votes on union contracts would mean less money for other purposes. With a finite set of money from the levy, the scenario of needing additional money is a no-brainer and easy to predict.

So now the county wants even more funds from certain jurisdictions to cover increased costs the county is responsible for. The Commissioners and Sheriff know that a levy request for such things probably wouldn't go over well. Increasing a levy to cover increased personnel costs when many who would pay the levy haven't seen pay increases or might not even have a job anymore is, well...dumb.

So rather than go after all county residents, they've decided to go after the townships, extorting cash for promised safety.

The townships are right to raise the question of what, exactly, the levy was supposed to pay for versus what it's actually covering. They've got valid reasons to believe dispatching is a service they're already paying for and the township trustees owe it to their taxpayers to ensure they are not double-taxed.

Too bad the Commissioners and Sheriff don't realize the same thing, especially knowing that township residents are their constituents as well.


DeeDee Liedel said...

I'm hard pressed to say that the County is in the wrong here in requesting townships to pay for dispatch services. Residents of Sylvaina Township pay the 9-1-1 levy, and yet our separate Police and Fire levies pay for dispatch services in Sylvania Township.

I'm not sure the illustration from the 1997 Blade article still holds true - that a call goes in to 911, and then is transferred electronically to the appropriate dispatch system. It is my understanding that if an area has a PSAP system (which Sylvania Township does), the 9-1-1 call goes directly to that PSAPs dispatchers.

As another illustration, the City of Sylvania has their own PSAP system; if someone in the city dials 9-1-1 for a fire, then Sylvania City's dispatchers 'transfers the call by computer' to Sylvania Township dispatch, which dispatches the fire department. Sylvania City dispatchers stay on the line with the 9-1-1 caller. The call is not routed to the downtown 911 center, nor do the county dispatchers have any thing to do with the call, unless may be for calls for mutual aid or life squad or basic transport.

So, since Springfield Township does not have their own PSAP dispatching system, they have to have someone dispatch their calls, and that is the county. Springfield could, I believe, have a PSAP system, and pay the related costs of local equipment and personnel, but they choose not to (though they are doing something with having fire dispatched out of the downtown 911 center, and supposedly trying to work towards a central fire dispatch system).

Where a 9-1-1 call is routed depends on whose PSAP is designated for a particular area; I'm not sure if that area is defined geographically, based on phone numbers, or what. And designated PSAPs can change; remember to when Waterville changed from Maumee to the county? It was a computer 'switch' to change where the 9-1-1 calls from Waterville were answered.

If you are correct, and the County's request to be paid for dispatching is 'double-taxation', than Sylvania Township and any other jurisdiction that has a PSAP system has been double taxed for years.

Maggie Thurber said...

DeeDee - when some of the jurisdictions went to their own PSAPs, (the decentralization of the call centers) they assumed some of the dispatching costs. If you'll note, though, the county was subsidizing those wages at the cost of $20,000 per employee.

You'd know better than I if they are still subsidizing that amount from the levy proceeds.

My understanding is that the jurisdictions with their own PSAP made a decision to forego certain things from the county in exchange for control over that aspect of the system.

But the fact that some of those costs were originally funded with levy dollars and now might not be would mean that yes, taxpayers are being 'double-billed.'

Of course, today the county can show that the levy isn't covering all the costs it originally was promised for - and why more money is needed.

But then, government always wants more money.

DeeDee Liedel said...

Maybe I'm not understanding the history, but I thought the whole point was to decentralize so that they can reduce response time. Was the original intent to decentralize but still work under one PSAP?

Anyway, I do not remember seeing a line-item in Sylvania Township's budget for this reimbursement of dispatchers. It may have been buried in an 'intergovernmental transfers' line, but I don't think so. I know the money we get for the life squad is explicitly marked, so I would assume the same would be true for dispatchers, if we were getting the money.

Interesting, life squad operators haven't seen an increase in receipts in 4-5 years even though the cost of running the life squads has gone up and protocols have increased personnel demands, now we find out that the county isn't providing the money we're perhaps were promised years ago for dispatchers. Why am I not surprised.

Maggie Thurber said...

DeeDee - yes, the decentralization was supposed to increase response times, but all the discussion I found on the matter dealt only with the villages and cities - not the townships.

As for the $21,000 subsidy, I could not find if that was continued, though it was promised 'annually.'

Here is the information on The Blade article that references the subsidy:

Blade, The (Toledo, OH) - Thursday, May 22, 1997

Each PSAP community will hire its own 911 operators, but Lucas County will own and maintain the 911 equipment. Each community is to receive about $21,000 annually to help pay for operator salaries, ...

Mad Jack said...

Snake oil. Look at this quote carefully: System officials hope to shave the response time by up to 45 seconds.

No promise of a faster response time was made, which is not surprising. No study was ever completed to prove just how decentralizing the 911 call center would magically provide a faster response time for police, fire and ambulance. Maybe because it won't?

What might make a difference are more and better trained operators.

Dee is quite right about Sylvania Township residents getting hosed over by double taxation. This is something that should have been spotted and corrected years ago. Let's see how the newly elected Township trustees deal with it.

Maggie Thurber said...


I wrote "DeeDee - yes, the decentralization was supposed to increase response times,"

and I should have written decrease response times

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