Long-Term Funding Still a Concern for 911 Center

By Beacon Staff

The Flathead Emergency Communications Center is once again at a transition point, with long-term funding still a major concern and two of the center’s leaders retiring this month.

Roger Laferriere, who was hired last September, stepped down as the Flathead County Office of Emergency Services director on April 30.

In an interview with the Beacon, Laferriere, of Burbank, Calif., said he was leaving the director position due to personal reasons related to his family.

Along with Laferriere’s resignation, the Flathead Emergency Communications Center – or 911 call center – will also accept the retirement of the lead dispatcher, according to Turner Askew, who represents the city of Whitefish on the center’s administrative board.

“Now all of a sudden we’ve got two heads that need to be replaced,” Askew said. “We’re trying to do that thoughtfully.”

Funding has also dominated the administrative board’s conversations lately. When the emergency communications center came to fruition, it was due to a $6.9 million bond approved by county voters.

The bond paid for construction and the high-tech equipment used within the response center. And in the last three years since the call center has been active, the administrative board has seen what the costs to run the center can be.

According to Laferriere, the annual budget for running the 911 center fluctuates depending on need. The center spent $2.5 million in fiscal year 2012. However, the administrative board has yet to come up with a long-term funding solution all members can agree on.

“We’ve never come up with a long-term plan to fund the 911 center,” Askew said. “There were a number of options that were looked at as a way to do permanent funding.”

One of the options included floating a new bond to the public, Askew said, but that was tabled during the administrative board’s April meeting. After former Flathead County Commissioner Jim Dupont’s death, the board was skeptical that they could find the personality to successfully present the bond to the public, Askew said.

“When Jim Dupont was alive we probably could have passed a bond issue or come up with a funding source,” Askew said. “But right now, I’m not sure who is going to get this thing passed.”

The current funding structure for the 911 center has the four municipalities – Whitefish, Kalispell, Columbia Falls and Flathead County – paying certain percentages of the operating expenses based on several factors, including population.

This is a flawed funding mechanism, according to Askew, because the county pays the majority of the costs due to its size relative to the other municipalities.

Flathead County Sheriff Chuck Curry, who also sits on the administrative board at the 911 center, said the funding mechanism in place now has the cities and county at odds over contributions each year.

“It would be so nice every year to not have to get all those different agencies and jurisdictions to agree on contributions,” Curry said. “If it was just set in stone, life would be a lot better.”

Curry said the problems stem from the call center being new and the administration still trying to find its footing. But while the current funding scheme keeps the doors open, it doesn’t account for major capital improvement projects, Curry said, such as preventative maintenance on radio towers or computer software.

Despite the challenges, Askew said he is confident the 911 center will eventually find the answers it is looking for, in regard to funding and leadership.

“We’ve got some great people there and somehow we’ll muddle through this,” he said. “The sky is not falling.”

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