By Ellen Thompson/Havre Daily Newsfirstname.lastname@example.org
Hill County and the city of Havre both have officials who are used to pinching pennies, but they have pinched themselves into opposite corners. In a decade-long dispute over which authority will house 911 call answering and emergency dispatching for all of Hill County, officials on each side have said they could do a better job for less.
But the standoff is likely, in the end, to cost money.
In 2002, after a two-year stalemate over which agency - the Havre Police Department or the Hill County Sheriff's Office - should house the primary call site once a new enhanced service became available, the joint city-county 911 committee chose the city location. The committee reversed its decision earlier this year, saw a walkout by its city members, and is looking at the possibility of allocating funds for two e-911 call centers.
Enhanced-911 allows an emergency dispatcher to see the location of a caller, which can speed response. Most states already have the service, and Montana began in 1998 to lay the groundwork for local agencies to provide it.
When the decision over choosing a primary location came before the committee in 2000, Hill County and Havre's fight over dispatch was already well under way.
Since the 1960s, 911 call answering and emergency dispatching were passed between the city and county several times until each agency came to see dispatching as central to its operations. Both governments found ways to make the most of dispatchers, the city using dispatchers to help handle office chores, the county to control the doors at the county jail. Both entities also purchased expensive equipment.
In the 1960s the city was fielding all emergency calls in the city and county and dispatching personnel in response. A budget crunch in the 1970s forced the city to lay off several employees, including nighttime and weekend dispatchers, former Havre Police Chief Mike Shortell said.
As a stopgap measure, the city asked the Havre Fire Department to provide a person to answer the police telephone and dispatch after-hours.
When Hill County Commissioner Mike Anderson joined the Fire Department in 1978, firefighters were still answering 911 calls and dispatching from the Police Department. Anytime there was a fire, every firefighter on duty would go, including the dispatcher, Anderson said.
The system did not work, and so the city asked the county to answer 911 calls and dispatch emergency personnel. The city still dispatched its own personnel during the day, but would turn city calls over to the county after the business office closed, Shortell said.
In 1987, the state required formalized 911 call answering agreements and implemented a statewide 25-cent charge on every phone line to pay for maintenance of 911 infrastructure. City and county officials signed an agreement that has governed 911 call answering since.
According to state guidelines, a seven-member committee oversees the 911 funds. The 911 committee was to include the Hill County sheriff, the Havre police chief, the Havre fire chief, the rural fire chief, a county commissioner, a city council member and a member at large.
Havre Mayor Bob Rice took over the seat allotted to a city council member several years ago. Present and former City Council members do not recall why or when this happened. Rice could not be reached for comment.
Soon after the 911 committee formed, problems appeared. According to 911 committee records, on May 31, 1990, the committee reviewed the results of a questionnaire that had been given to members of the police, sheriff's and fire departments asking about dispatching. The first question asked: Was there sufficient cooperation between county and city agencies in emergency dispatching.
Of the 17 responses, two were positive and two were neutral. The rest were negative.
"County should do all dispatching. Information reaches officers third hand," wrote one responder.
"Cooperation is non existence," another wrote. "Call is received and information passed on two or three times. No one knows who should answer questions."
Others got personal. "Rumor that Fire Chief demands too much," was a third response.
When asked what could be improved, four of 22 responders said enhanced-911 service was needed. Ten said dispatch needed to be centralized, and eight made other suggestions about training or equipment.
In December 1991, the city and county signed a second agreement for providing 911 call answering and dispatching that was to last from 1992 to 1997. The agreement restated that the county would provide the dispatching service for the city after-hours. The service would be provided in exchange for forgiveness of the county's portion of the Havre Community Pool costs, roughly $20,000 a year.
The city also paid for a third of a new radio console for the county - about $40,000. The county paid another $40,000 and the 911 funds provided the final third. The purpose of the 1991 agreement was to "avoid duplication of personnel and equipment," it said. The agreement would "obtain and maintain utility from the consolidation of the dispatching function for both City and County within the Sheriff's Office."
After the end of the term of the agreement, while negotiating a subsequent agreement, Hill County asked the city for additional funds to pay for dispatching, first for $75,000 and then $50,000. Negotiations lasted more than a year.
Hill County Commissioner Kathy Bessete and former Commissioner Pat Conway wrote to city officials to explain the need for funds. The county was spending $161,000 a year on dispatch services annually, they wrote. Most calls originate in the city, and so the city should pay more, they said.
At that time, the Hill County Sheriff's Office had moved into its current office, next to the Hill County Detention Center, which houses a prison control and dispatch center. The county buildings were paid for by a $4.4 million bond issue passed in 1996.
The bond issue for the new jail originally included a building to be shared by the police and sheriff's offices. The project was scaled back after failing twice, and the city was asked to withdraw, Shortell said.
On the third try, voters approved a bond issue for a jail and a dispatch center, with leftover funds to be used to build the sheriff's office, Hill County Sheriff Greg Szudera said Thursday.
When the move into the building was made at the end of 1999, city and county officials agree there were problems. Former Hill County Sheriff Tim Solomon said there was too much for staff to do, so the county commissioners asked the city for more money.
City unhappy with service
The city was not happy with the dispatching service that was provided at the time.
"The county wanted more money and did not allow the city to put in any input regarding dispatching services being provided," Janet Haas, city dispatch supervisor, wrote recently in a letter asking the public to support a city-run e-911 facility.
City officials had also decided the Police Department needed to be open 24 hours a day. Shortell recalls several instances when a victim was chased by an attacker into the foyer of the department where there was a phone to call county dispatch. "That situation really was hazardous and dangerous," he said. "It was just not the right situation for us and we could not tolerate it anymore."
The city believed it could run its own 24-hour dispatch for the amount of money the county was asking, county planner Clay Vincent said this week. Vincent has held the member-at-large position on the 911 committee since it formed in 1987.
Former Havre City Council member Helen Hill wrote to the county commissioners in December 1999, " we conclude that the need to provide for walk-in emergency services within the City, 24 hours a day, is critical. Additionally we feel that all of the City Departments reliance upon the City's dispatch related services would be best met by operating our own Communications Center."
Negotiations between the two entities continued for several more months. In 2000, facing an ailing budget, Solomon wrote to Shortell, "If, however, an agreement cannot be reached by midnight on June 30th, 2000, I will be forced to stop providing dispatch functions to your department. This will include all present dispatch functions currently provided to your department, not inclusive of 911 services, which we shall still provide."
The ultimatum caught city officials by surprise. Haas quoted it in her letter supporting a city e-911 center.
In a letter dated May 24, 2000, the day after Solomon's letter, Shortell responded by writing to the City Council's Finance Committee asking the committee to open four dispatch positions. The city began dispatching full-time that year.
The city now has a $126,000 dispatching budget, which includes the cost of the three full-time and three part-time staffers, but does not include the cost of another full-time dispatcher plus that of dispatch supervisor Haas, who is also an administrative assistant. Those costs, Havre Police Chief Mike Barthel said, fall under a separate category in the budget.
The Hill County Sheriff's Office pays $185,000 in dispatching costs each year for all positions and benefits.
In 1998, as the city and county were fighting over money for county dispatch, the state mandated another 25-cent fee for the implementation of enhanced 911. The 911 committee set the goal of offering enhanced service to county and city residents.
Little progress made
There were many steps that needed to be completed first, including choosing a primary answering site for 911 calls.
Those on the committee at the time recall two years without progress.
"Neither one of them would sign off on a plan that didn't go to their agency," Hill County Undersheriff Don Brostrom said Thursday.
In 2002, all entities finally agreed on a plan that listed the city as the primary call site, and the county as the secondary site.
In an interview last November, Conway, who sat on the committee for nine years, said he decided to concede and go with the city plan. Then-Havre Police Chief Kevin Olson had assured the committee that there would be no added expense with using the city's plan, he said, and so he decided it was time to move forward.
In November of last year, a hardware vendor for e-911 equipment estimated the cost of upgrading the city location to host the service was up to $150,000, and the cost of upgrading the county up to $30,000. The news caused the 911 committee to reconsider its 3-year-old decision.
The city came forward with news of a private donation that would cover the necessary upgrades, offered by the daughter of a retired assistant police chief, Darlene Sharp, and her husband, John.
The county continued to argue that the costs of two e-911 locations were too high.
Old wounds reopened and in a January meeting of the 911 committee, the three city members walked out as a vote by the remaining members reversed the 2002 decision, putting primary dispatch in the county jail.
The county has since revised the 2002 plan, making the county the primary site. The city, with support from the Havre City Council granted this week in a unanimous vote, is writing its own, city-only plan.
There are more points of contention, as the city claims that the county plan excludes city residents from service and does not name the city as backup.
Havre City Council member Terry Schend called that a "slap in the face."
The changes that appear to exclude the city were made by the state, County Commissioner Anderson said Thursday. That includes listing "at least 1,000 phone lines," which suggests that the city would be excluded. That's not the case, he said.
Anderson said there was no sense in naming the city as backup since the two agencies are so close.
The state's position
State 911 program coordinator Becky Berger had asked for the separate plans, she said, after the breakup of the e-911 committee, which has not met since January.
In suggesting the two plans, she said, she believed the elected officials would see the additional costs and reconcile. But a two-location solution could also work, Berger added.
Barthel went ahead with Berger's suggestion, advocating a city plan that the Havre City Council voted unanimously to support earlier this week.
At one stab at a compromise, Szudera had offered that Barthel run dispatch out of the county jail. In another effort, Barthel offered to consolidate dispatch at the city location.
"At this time I don't know whether I would support that or not," Barthel said in an interview last week.
Barthel has said that he does not see cost savings in consolidating dispatch. There are currently two dispatchers working 24 hours a day, one in the city, one in the county, he said. One dispatcher cannot handle 911 calls and dispatching for both agencies; that failed in the past, he added.
If they did consolidate at the county location, the city would have the added cost of filling nighttime positions for a help desk, Barthel said. The city is committed to keeping the station open all night, he said.
County officials have made a similar argument. During slow hours at the jail, there is one person controlling doors and dispatching. Removing the dispatching duty means employing someone to mostly sit and wait.
"You're comparing apples with apples," Havre Fire Chief Dave Sheppard said at a meeting earlier this year when both authorities stated their case for needing 24-hour personnel.
If the city and county were to consolidate, they would at least begin with the combined staff of eight full-time and about eight part-time dispatchers, Bessette said in a January meeting. But it would be possible, she added, that eventually at least one full-time position could be removed, a savings of $35,000 a year.
But Barthel has said the county probably needs three dispatching stations. City dispatch supervisor Haas said she recalls times that three dispatchers have been working at a time.
The city and county locations each have two stations for a dispatcher to work, and the 2002 plan proposed preparing all four for e-911. Replacing that with three stations - two at the city and one at the county - would save $25,000, and would still allow for handling of larger events that produce a high volume of calls, Barthel said.
But there are added starting costs for two different locations, and higher maintenance and upgrade costs, county officials have said.
With $350,000 raised in 911 funds between the city and the county, Barthel said, the city and county can each afford the service. To connect to the state plan, a stand-alone location must pay $82,000 to start, and more than $10,000 in one-time service charges, plus monthly fees. A secondary location costs $30,000 to hook up, not including other startup fees and monthly fees. Listing the county as a secondary site saves money, he said, and there is enough money in the fund to connect both sites to the state e-911 system, with money to save for upgrades.
"The city of Havre's position on this is years from now, three, five years, depending on city and county growth, maybe consolidated dispatch could be explored again, but as of right now, the most effective and cost-saving measure would be for a three-station solution," Barthel said Thursday.
"A centrally located dispatch center (in the city) with both entities in it is probably a good solution," he added, "but right now with the current technology that we have and the separated systems that are already paid for, it's just not financially feasible right now."
Szudera said that even if the city and county would need the same number of employees as they have now, a better service is provided when two dispatchers are working together in the same room.
Berger's office will soon have two plans before it. Berger has said the decision over primary dispatch and consolidation is a local one and the state will not choose between the two plans.