by Ellen Thompson
Hill County Sheriff Greg Szudera and Havre Police Chief Mike Barthel will square off this afternoon to hash out the 4-year-old question of where to locate an enhanced-911 dispatch center.
A decision made two years ago to house the center in the Havre Police Department came unhinged Monday when a joint 911 committee learned it could cost as much as $100,000 to locate the center at the police station. In comparison, the cost to upgrade the dispatch center at the county jail is estimated at $20,000 to $30,000. All 911 phone calls are currently dispatched from that location.
"To be accountable to the taxpayer, I want to look at ... consolidation of dispatch duties to one location ... to save cost and provide the same service," Szudera said in an interview today. He said the best location is the Hill County Detention Center, which was built with the intention of housing the e-911 dispatch center.
"I don't know if those figures are totally accurate," Barthel said.
The estimates were ballpark figures, and not part of a bid or work order, county sanitarian and planner Clay Vincent said.
For more than four years the city and county have been trying to get enhanced-911, a service that allows the 911 dispatcher to see the address of a caller. The service shortens response time, but in order to provide it, the county and city need to choose a primary dispatch location.
Vincent said he expects to see a contract from the state within the next three weeks inviting Hill County to join a regional network that would provide the service in the county for an estimated $82,000 to start. He said the city and county need to decide on a location for the dispatch center before the 911 committee can sign the contract. Even if Hill County does not join the state plan and adopts its own plan, it will need to tell the state its decision at some point, he added.
"They are both gentlemen," Mayor Bob Rice said when he volunteered Barthel and Szudera for the task of working out the issue.
Szudera and Barthel both said they didn't think today's meeting would resolve the issue.
"We're calling the meeting together to put it in black and white and put all the figures together," Szudera said.
While the current sheriff and police chief were praised Monday, their predecessors were criticized.
Former Police Chief Kevin Olson "assured us it could be up and running for a relatively low cost," County Commissioner Pat Conway said.
"There was a sheriff that didn't want it there" in the detention center, Rice said.
Olson could not be reached for comment.
Former Sheriff Tim Solomon said today he always said the detention center was the best choice for dispatch.
"I voiced all along very strong opinions and it was no secret in the city or the county that the dispatch should stay in the detention center," Solomon said.
He said the costs would be lower over time because personnel are already in the detention center 24 hours a day.
"I personally have strong feelings that that's a burden on the taxpayer not to use the facility that was designed for that," Solomon said.
City representatives said Monday that it's important to have the location in the city. Not all residents have phone service, Barthel said, and they cannot be expected to walk to the detention center to report a crime.
Also, he said today, in the event of technical problems, the dispatcher could get up and walk to the Fire Department to report an emergency.
Both Barthel and Szudera said their dispatch centers house superior technology.
During the meeting, Rice also mentioned that the city is in the process of spending $20,000 to renovate its dispatch center with the assumption that enhanced-911 would be housed there.
Bulletproof glass and bulletproof doors were installed in the Police Department over the past few weeks, at a cost of $10,500, Barthel said. The next phase will be to finish brickwork in the walls of the station foyer.
The work was undertaken with the understanding that the station would house the upgraded dispatch center, Rice said Monday.
Solomon said today that when taxpayers were asked to support the $4 million bond issue that paid for the new detention center, they were told one benefit would be streamlined dispatching.
"I don't think the bottom line is the cost," Havre Fire Chief Dave Sheppard said at the meeting. "It's are we offering the best service possible?"