County wants to cut funding for Clay Township dispatch

Communications Officer Eric Overholt answers and dispatches calls at his terminal Thursday at St. Clair County Central Dispatch in Port Huron Township. (Jeffrey Smith | Times Herald)

Communications Officer Eric Overholt answers and dispatches calls at his terminal Thursday at St. Clair County Central Dispatch in Port Huron Township. (Jeffrey Smith | Times Herald)

By Tony Wittkowski | Local Government Reporter | The Times Herald

This county isn’t big enough for two dispatch systems.

That’s what some St. Clair County commissioners believe when it comes to sharing state and county 911 taxes between the county’s central dispatch system and Clay Township’s dispatch system.

County commissioners will begin discussions in the next couple weeks about excluding funding for Clay Township Public Safety Answering Point from the area’s 911 Service Plan in 2020.

The exclusion of the township dispatch system would mean the county’s Central Dispatch Authority would take the share of surcharge money that usually goes to Clay Township dispatch system — about $62,000 in 2014.

“I want the townships and cities to have a clear idea that the county is not going to support municipalities breaking away from Central Dispatch,” board chairman Jeff Bohm said.

“We are not going to send funding to others that want to start their own dispatch. If you lose anybody, it’s going to hamper our regionalization effort.”

Clay Township Supervisor Artie Bryson believes the county’s motivations for cutting the township dispatch out of the 911 plan are purely monetary.

“I see it as nothing but a money grab,” Bryson said. “I think whoever does the work should get the money. In my mind, we should also be getting Ira’s 911 funds.”

Who pays for a 911 call?

The 911 service plan serves as a guide on how the county operates its 911 system. In addition to technical and operational considerations, it includes the fiscal responsibilities on costs.

Clay Township receives 6 percent of the state funding that comes to the county.

Bohm said retaining the additional funding for the county’s central dispatch is just a portion of the need to update the service plan.

The board’s main intent is to operate as one regional dispatch center, as the county is trying to move to a new software program within the next year.

“We’re moving to a countywide software program that everybody — except Clay — will be using,” Bohm said. “When you upgrade the software, it’s better to have everyone on the same page. We can’t make them be part of it.”

The county also is reviewing its current 911 service plan because the information has changed since it was made in 2009.

At that time, Clay Township and the county’s central dispatch were considered backup centers for one another in the event of an emergency.

While the county is still considered Clay Township’s backup center, Lapeer County was made central dispatch’s backup because they are more capable of handling the workload, said Tim Conger, Central Dispatch Authority director.

“It’s been more than a year now since Lapeer County was made this county’s backup,” Conger said. “Clay has one dispatcher on at a time. I can’t give their dispatch my nightly call volume. Lapeer has a similar system and it wouldn’t cost any more to upgrade a backup system.”

Central dispatch, as it stands

Prior to the current 911 service plan, there were three separate dispatch units — Clay Township, Port Huron and St. Clair County.

Sherry Bartram was the county’s dispatch director when it became a separate entity from the sheriff’s office in 2004.

She helped facilitate the merger between the county and Port Huron in 2008.

Bartram said Port Huron decided to join because it would have been too expensive to upgrade the city dispatch system in order to be compatible with the county.

“When Port Huron joined the county they saw a significant decrease in expenses,” said Bartram, who now runs a consolidated dispatch center called the South East Regional Emergency Services Authority in Macomb County. “It was such a big deal when we did that.”

According to Port Huron city accountant Ed Brennan, the city’s police department saved $350,000 by joining the county dispatch. The city was paying $700,000 a year.

The state funding that the county is hoping to absorb in 2020 is determined by a county’s population and a set payment all 83 counties receive.

The distribution of the funding is decided by a county’s 911 service plan.

The state levies a 19 cent surcharge per device each month, which is then collected and distributed on a quarterly basis.

The county imposes an additional monthly local surcharge of 60 cents per device that is collected quarterly.

County dispatch is responsible for 94 percent of the population, so it receives 94 percent of the surcharges.

In 2014, central dispatch received about $1.3 million in state and county surcharges.

Conger said the county received more than 62,500 calls through 911 last year, as well as 135,275 non-emergency phone calls.

Local dispatch has local knowledge

Clay Township dispatch covers about 110 square miles of land and water between Clay and Ira townships.

In 2012, Ira contracted with Clay for police services. At that time, Clay also took over Ira’s dispatching.

“They pay us $135,000 a year for dispatching and police services,” Bryson said. “The contract also includes getting their 911 surcharges. We got payments for one or two months before the county put a stop to it.”

In 2014, the Clay dispatch system took a total of 44,703 calls. Complaint numbers were assigned to about 9,573 of those calls.

Clay Township Police Lt. Michael Koach said the dispatchers in Clay Township wear a few different hats, handling calls, walk-ins, records-keeping, preliminary breath tests and Freedom of Information Act requests.

The dispatch center’s 110-square-mile coverage area, hundreds of islands, confusing road- and waterways, and heavy summer traffic require local knowledge and response, Koach said.

In addition to the 1,200 residents who live on Harsens Island year-round, Clay Township also dispatches to about 350 homes on islands accessible only by boat. Harsens Island’s population more than triples during the summer.

With a large number of land and water tourists during the summer, Clay Township dispatch often gets calls from boaters and drivers who have an emergency but have no idea where they are.

Local dispatchers with local knowledge are essential to determining those callers’ whereabouts, Koach said.

“It’s not like its a couple isolated incidents,” Koach said. “It happens all the time.”

“Our dispatchers are local dispatchers. They live here, they know the area. We have dispatchers who have really invested their lives in the community. That’s what you try to surround yourself with.”

A costly operation

Commissioner Bill Gratopp, who represents Clay Township’s district, said he would side with what his township wants when the board updates the 911 service plan.

However, he does not know if residents realize what it costs to run a separate dispatch.

“If the citizens of Clay Township want their own dispatch and are willing to pay for it, I’ll side with them,” Gratopp said. “I just don’t think the residents are aware of the fact that they are paying $300,000 for dispatch.”

Bryson said it’s difficult to determine the budget of the township dispatch system as its costs are worked into the police department’s $2.1 million budget.

He estimated about $300,000 was spent on dispatch, but some of that is spent on administrative positions that also oversee the police department.

If the dispatch system was scrapped, the department still would need to hire people to take up the dispatcher’s other tasks, like records-keeping and handling walk-in complaints.

Once the dual administrative positions and other duties are factored out, Bryson said the direct cost to dispatch to Ira and Clay townships is between $130,000 and $145,000 a year.

“If we closed it down that’s what we’d save,” Bryson said. “That equates to about $15 per resident.”

Last year, Clay Township received about $62,000 through the state and county 911 surcharges. Nearly $12,000 of those surcharges were used to pay back the county for a debt payment for dispatch infrastructure.

Bryson said without that cash the dispatch system still would continue.

Dave Burley, a police officer for the Clay Township Police Department, looks at a map of southern St. Clair County Wednesday at the Clay Township Police Department. (Beth Leblanc | Times Herald)

Dave Burley, a police officer for the Clay Township Police Department, looks at a map of southern St. Clair County Wednesday at the Clay Township Police Department. (Beth LeBlanc | Times Herald)

He said township residents approved a 5-mill special assessment to pay for police and dispatch services.

Currently, the township levies about 4.35 mills. It could increase that tax to 5 mills to fund dispatch if it had to.

Clay Township resident Kathy Dernhardt doesn’t think one dispatch would be beneficial to the southern portion of the county.

This past summer, Dernhardt was involved in a personal watercraft accident and called the dispatch center. Dernhardt said she wasn’t injured and was unable to file a report until a few days later because most of the officers were dispatched to a large boat crash.

“It might have been handled quicker, but I don’t see the county helping our area as fast,” Dernhardt said.

Even though she has to pay out of pocket as a resident, Dernhardt is in support of keeping dispatch local.

Gary Kupper has been a Clay Township resident for 20 years and has had to call the police a couple times.

He doesn’t believe he would receive the same response if the county were to only have one dispatch center.

“When we’ve had to make calls, the response has always been very quick and effective,” he said. “I would have concerns with it becoming more centralized.”

A new 911 service plan

Financially, the new plan would recognize the Central Dispatch Authority as the only dispatch center in the county. The surcharge funds would subsequently go toward the county’s dispatch.

Bohm said the extra funding the county would receive could be used to pay for system upgrades when needed.

“The county has to bear the burden of expenses to the system. If we enhance the system, Clay Township doesn’t pay for system upgrades,” Bohm said. “Realistically, the impact is insignificant compared to our budget, but this is a philosophical shift. Updating the plan is one of our initiatives to get done by year’s end.”

Bohm said the offer for Clay Township to become part of its central dispatch is still on the table.

Conger said there is not a specific number for what it would cost Clay Township to join the county’s dispatch. In the case of Port Huron, central dispatch used the surcharges Port Huron would have received from the state to provide service.

“We used to charge each municipality for dispatch services, but we don’t do that anymore,” Conger said. “The last four years we offer dispatch services for the surcharge money it receives.”

By joining the county, Bohm said Clay Township could cut its budget or use the funds elsewhere.

“They could reduce their millage rate for police and fire,” Bohm said. “If they don’t choose to reduce the rate they could hire additional officers. I just think $300,000 is a lot of money for a small municipality.”

State dispatch moves toward regionalization

Harriet Miller-Brown, state 911 administrator, said Michigan has its fair share of regional dispatch systems and community specific systems.

But the number of 911 centers in Michigan has decreased over the years.

“I think there’s a trend toward maximizing their resources,” Miller-Brown said. “Each community has to evaluate its needs, its funding, its resources and its operations.”

Miller-Brown said about 10 years ago, the state had 172 dispatch centers. Now, the number is down to 147.

Last year, Kalamazoo County voted to go from five dispatch centers to one, Miller-Brown said. Kent County recently went from five to two.

In northern Michigan, one 911 center dispatches for Charlevoix, Cheboygan and Emmet counties, Miller-Brown said.

Thom Canny, corporate counsel for Kalamazoo County, said the decision to unite the county’s five dispatch center has been a long time coming.

“On and off, I think the discussion has been in the county for over 20 years,” Canny said. “All of the five PSAPs intend to get to a point in the future where we have a single consolidated dispatch. When that occurs, we’ll have to see.”

Canny said the goal of the consolidated system is to provide a safer, more efficient service for the public.

“If we can do the dispatching operations countywide through a singular entity we should be able to have better coverage, more efficient coverage and at better cost to the residents,” Canny said.

There are other areas where small, independent dispatch centers still are common.

Oakland County has 21 separate dispatch systems.

Macomb County is down to nine separate dispatch systems after Clinton Township last year and Sterling Heights last month joined the Macomb County Sheriff Dispatch.

Richmond opted to stay independent from a larger dispatch system and finished moving into a new dispatch center Thursday.

Richmond Police Chief Dave Teske said staying independent from a larger system saved the community money and ensured local support.

Like Clay Township’s dispatchers, Richmond’s dispatchers also do record-keeping, handle walk-ins, and take administrative calls.

“We still know a lot of these community people,” said Earl Baranowski, 911 coordinator for the Richmond dispatch. “We provide a safe haven. I don’t see how your big dispatch centers can handle that.”

Lead Enterprise Reporter Beth LeBlanc contributed to this report.

Contact Tony Wittkowski at (810) 989-6270 or twittkowsk@gannett.com. Follow him on Twitter @tonywittkowski.

(Author’s Note: This article was originally published on March 15, 2015)

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