Officials reach stalemate in E-911 funding debate

By | August 31, 2009 12:00 am

Officials with the City of Sparta and E-911 met for a second time in less than three weeks to discuss emergency services funding issues that have led E-911 Board of Directors to approve litigation against the city and White County.
Several county commissioners were also in attendance at the meeting where Mayor Tommy Pedigo opened the forum by stating the purpose was to gain information about funding the operations of dispatching services. However, he first addressed another issue.
“There have been two or three comments in the paper about 911 Board people that says that the City Board and County Commission are more concerned about money than they are about lives,” said Pedigo. “Speaking on behalf of the Board, I personally consider that an insult.
“We’re all here voluntarily to try to spend the money the best we can, to be as diligent as we can with the county’s money. And for the Board members to say that we would rather see people get killed than spend money is just beyond belief that they would make those statements. And I hope that those statements would stop.”
Attorney Mike Kress, representing E-911, addressed the gathering and explained that a number of E-911 Board members were unable to attend for various reasons. He said E-911 also wants to find a resolution to the issues.
“I think this is an issue that touches and affects White Countians in a very profound way,” stated Kress. “The net effect of inadequate funding can lead to inadequate services, whether through training or equipment or otherwise.
“We are in a precarious financial position. We’re between a rock and hard place because the state is sending every signal to us; in fact, I just got a letter this week or last week from the state about the meeting that’s coming up Sept. 24th before the TECB (Tennessee Emergency Communications Board), which directs E-911 Board to show cause why this funding should not be cut at the state level as a result of the funding levels from the City and County.”
Kress explained various ramifications of inadequate funding, including merging with or sending responsibility of dispatching service to another county’s E-911 center. He stated a negative factor in the later result could potentially be slowed response times to emergencies.
He also stated dispatchers from another county would, most likely, not have the same awareness of landmarks, county and city roads, and other localized knowledge as do local dispatchers, leading to less efficient handling of calls and directing emergency responders to locations. He said any possible changes in the dispatch method would also have a similar resulting effect in services.
County Commissioner Terry Alley asked to address the meeting.
“I spoke with the county executive of Putnam County,” said Alley. “They were willing to do the services for White County. By the way, I haven’t spoken to anyone here about that – with the county or the city. I talked to the Warren County executive. I’ve talked to the 911 director, Mr. Haston, and Warren County and their executive board director today.”
He explained if a transfer of services outside White County was decided upon, there were funding sources available, which would be sufficient enough when added to current local funding to pay another E-911 district to operate White County’s services.
“They said that the state encourages counties to consolidate,” stated Alley. “We have Overton and Pickett. Overton does that dispatching now for Pickett. The system that Warren County is on is through Ben Lomand. And we’re fortunate enough to have the same system. He said you could literally flip a switch to do the 911 dispatching through Ben Lomand to do Warren County and White County.”
He stated White County E-911 has actually done this on a temporary basis at times of outages at the local facility.
“If Warren County was to do our 911 dispatching, there is a grant for $300,000 that would cover the expense of whatever it would be to change over,” said Alley. “And they said they could operate for some time with that. They could take the funding that the City’s doing, the funding that the County’s doing and continue operating at that level.”
He said Warren County officials asked that three White County people be part of their E-911 Board. He stated other details could be worked out.
“I disagree that calls would be delayed if it were in Warren County,” said Alley. “Because of technology, the center could be in China for that matter. If Warren County needed to hire additional people, they would do that. If the technology was demanded to increase, whatever that would be, Warren County would absorb that. I guess to shorten the story, we could provide the same funding that we’re doing now to continue that operation with them and it would solve the money problem.”
Kress questioned the implications of any other county’s controlling the entire operations. He raised the concern that circumstances in another county, even with limited local representation on the other county’s Board, might cause that county’s E-911 Board to make strategic economic decisions, which could put White County’s services in a precarious position in the allocation of monies to cover budgeted services for White County.
He used, as example, the current lack of total coverage of the dispatched signal to the entire county. He estimated emergency workers are unable to receive the signal in approximately 20 percent of White County’s geographical area.
He said White County’s E-911 Board is taking steps to adequately fill those holes in coverage by purchasing an existing tower on Milksick Mountain. And the Board is considering other actions to remedy additional areas’ reception.
He questioned the ability of another county to properly prioritize such actions, especially in tough economic times.
“Why do we have 20 percent of the county not covered by 911?” asked Pedigo.
“My answer to that question is we don’t have the funding to go out and cover the rest of it right now,” said Kress.
“Has 911 ever come to the County and the City and say, ‘we’ve got 20 percent of the City and County that’s not covered and we need to raise the funds to be able to cover that – that’s the purpose of the City and County is to fund it,” questioned Pedigo.
“To answer your question, I don’t know,” stated Kress. “And I don’t know that that’s happened while I’ve been associated with the 911 Board and that’s since 2005.”
Pedigo alluded to Alley’s comments in the potential savings in costs by moving services to another county.
“I don’t know about the county but, I think, it’s not the position of the City to go contract to somebody else to do our 911 service,” said Pedigo. “But it is our responsibility, that if, while I’m putting these numbers together, if we could save $164,000 a year from the money 911’s requesting from the City and County versus what we’re giving them and Warren County being able to do it for the amount of money that we’re giving now, that’s a tremendous amount of money that we’re giving 911 to put in the bank for future investments – new technology or whatever.”
“If in fact that is the case, I think that that’s something that the City and County should consider but I really question that,” replied Kress. “And part of the reason I question that is what I said previously. I’m really worried that, if improvements are going to be made in this county, whether it’s for communications purposes, equipment, what have you, whether it’s going to be as adequate as it should be.”
“But let me also say this, Mike,” stated Pedigo. “You’re concern is that Sparta and White County would lose control. Well, in fact, that’s why we’re here tonight. Sparta and White County has lost control.”
“We have an interlocal agreement. We should be working together. Budgets should be presented. We should go over those budgets. We should come back to you all about those budgets. We should be talking about what’s happening, what’s not adequate, and where we could go. And if we can’t come to an agreement, we go back to the previous year (budget). I mean that’s in our interlocal agreement. But the reason we’re here tonight is because we’ve lost control and we feel like that 911, as we’ve said before, is asking for pie in the sky.”
Jeff Young, who serves as an alderman for the City and represents the County on the E-911 Board, addressed two issues raised by Pedigo.
“The City and the County, as far as my knowledge is, is not supposed to have control,” said Young. “Control is with the E-911 district.”
“We control funding,” stated Pedigo.
“You control funding – not control what’s done regarding improvements, new upgrades,” said Young.
“Nobody disputes that,” answered Pedigo.
“I just wanted to clarify that,” stated Young. “Now the second thing is going back to what we’re calling the surplus of money. That number is less than $300,000 now. And like Mike (Kress) just mentioned, the $50,000 purchase is basically required to have communications to certain areas. A $50,000 generator is going to have to be bought. So that number close to $280,000 is going to be $180,000.”
“I spoke to the state director today,” continued Young. “We talked about roughly the $300,000 balance because she understood that continues to be a topic of discussion. According to her, that number of $300,000 is less than half of what they recommend our center to have in reserve at all times.”
“Now wait a minute, Jeff,” said Pedigo. “You’re telling me that Nashville has told you that with a $600,000 budget that you should have a $600,000 fund balance.”
“I was told that by the state director today,” answered Young.
“Do you know what the City’s fund balance is with its $4 million budget and you have an idea about the county’s,” questioned Pedigo. “Do you realize what the tax implications would be, if you tax the people to have that kind of money?”
“It depends on if you do it all at one time, like the situation now, versus doing this since 2004,” stated Young. “You have a cumulative amount that’s built up. That’s all I’m saying.”
Young was referencing a 2004 order by TECB for Sparta and White County to return to funding levels from 2001 as a means to have available funds for anticipated future expenditures in various functions of the operations.
Pedigo asked for clarification of the TECB’s executive director’s statement about reserve fund levels, which Young acknowledged.
Pedigo mentioned recent references to new generation communication’s equipment purchased by Montgomery County for $770,000 and how a budget for a district the size of White County is not even close to the budget of a county that size.
“I’d like for them to say to us that a $600,000 budget with a $600,000 fund balance is what they recommend,” said Pedigo.
“The TECB recommends that a 911 district have an amount in reserve, or fund balance as you’re calling it, equal to what all the expenses are for the district to work for a year plus whatever it would cost to cover the equipment,” stated Kress.
“Well, I’ve been on school boards and city boards and businesses and the numbers I’ve always heard is 20 percent (in reserves),” said Pedigo. “Twenty percent is a very adequate amount of money to be sitting in a fund balance.”
Pedigo expressed concern that the situation has escalated to a potential lawsuit approved by a Board that includes county commissioners and a city aldermen.
“Since I’m the only alderman sitting on that Board, I’ll address that,” stated Young. “My only reason for voting the way that I did… is because on numerous occasions I’ve heard the comment made, ‘I’m not paying any more until I’m told I have to’.”
“We tried to negotiate the other day and Mike wouldn’t accept anything,” said Pedigo.
Kress explained mandates from the state board call for funds to not be reduced below the previous year’s contribution. He said the position of the local E-911 Board is to follow state guidelines and, keeping in mind he as attorney does not have the power to make decisions for the E-911 Board, they must follow every avenue to achieve the goals set forth by the TECB.
Young pointed to the upcoming meeting with TECB and no solution’s being able to be reached.
“So based on those comments of we’re not paying any more until we’re told we have to, what other choice do we have,” commented Young. “We can’t reach a solution apparently. We’ve reached an impasse. My only thoughts were put it before a judge, arbitrator, whatever you want to call it. Let that person make the decision. Let somebody make the decision. Whether it’s right, wrong or anywhere in between, we have to make a decision to move forward. If not, we’re going to move backwards as far as communications is concerned.”
The meeting continued with no meeting of the minds between any of the parties.

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