With $6.9 Million in Hand, Challenges Loom for 911 Center

By Beacon Staff

There can be no doubt the greatest hurdle to building a new consolidated 911 center here was likely jumped in November when voters narrowly passed a $6.9 million bond measure. But, even with money in hand, there are still challenges facing the project in coming months.

At last week’s Flathead City-County 911 Administrative Board meeting, questions arose over rumors concerning staffing for the new center, the interlocal agreement between area municipalities and whether or not to hire a construction site manager.

The bond provides for a new, 11,800-square-foot building to act as the new emergency operations headquarters for the entire county and bring all emergency personnel and equipment under one roof. The board also has approximately $5 million in state and federal funding to overhaul the entire communication system to new state-of-the-art dispatch equipment, including radios and towers.

So far the center is under budget, coming in about $524,000 shy of the bond approval with a $400,000 cushion included in estimates.

It’s a much-needed update, 911 board members say, to a system that is antiquated and inefficient.

Board members at last week’s meeting said they were concerned that rumors were “running rampant” about what may happen to dispatchers when the consolidation is finalized.

“If you don’t know what the hell is going on, then don’t be saying things to people,” Michael Shepard, a Columbia Falls city council member and 911 board member, cautioned his colleagues. “We’ve worked too hard to get this far to have dispatchers upset over rumors.”

Mark Peck, the county’s 911 project coordinator, has previously estimated that consolidation would trim the number of dispatch people countywide by about five full-time equivalent positions. But while there aren’t enough jobs in the new facility to absorb everyone, Whitefish City Councilor Turner Askew said the board expects to absorb or shift people to other departments or assignments rather than lay anyone off.

“I imagine there will be people who, if they’re already working, say, Columbia Falls would prefer to have another position and not have to drive to Kalispell,” Askew said.

Board member Diane Smith suggested Peck hold a regular teleconference call where city and county employees could call in and ask questions about the project. “The best way to alleviate fears is to give them information, or be honest and say, ‘I don’t know, yet, but I’ll find out.’”

City councilors on the board reported that efforts to draft an interlocal agreement between each of the three cities and the county are going well. The interlocal agreement will detail each municipality’s share of funding for the project, likely determined by population counts from the state’s Department of Labor and Industry.

The politics and financing of a consolidated 911 center have complicated the merger in the past.

“People anticipate that we are at odds with each other and maybe I missed something … if it falls apart I’d be very surprised, though,” Whitefish city councilor Turner Askew said.

Board members butted heads over whether to hire a construction site manager, with Flathead County Sheriff Mike Meehan casting a tie-breaking vote to turn the measure down. Proponents had suggested a salary of up to $5,000 a month for up to 10 months for a manager who would make onsite construction evaluations and decisions.

“We’re getting ready to spend $700,000 per month,” Smith said. “That’s more than the architects or Mark (Peck) are going to be able to oversee everyday.”

But other board members balked at the suggestion, saying it was an unnecessary expenditure. The group agreed to consider the proposal again next month.

Meanwhile, the need for the center and improved communications equipment continues to grow, organizers say. Peck reported last week that calls to the county dispatch center climbed to 57,591 in 2008 – an increase of nearly 60 percent over the past three years.

“The trend continues,” Peck said. “We were up about 5,500 calls from the last year, most of those coming from EMS and law enforcement.”

And Askew reported that the city’s recorder – used to transcribe 911 calls – is no longer working. Replacement equipment will likely cost between $20,000 and $25,000.

“There’s a lot to do, but this is going to solve so many of our problems when its complete,” Peck said.