The People's Tribune

Commissioners, Louisiana City Officials Debate Future Of Centralized 911 Operation

County Looks To Form New Advisory Board For Consolidation Of 9-1-1 Services

While tempers might have flared at the Pike County Commissioners office on Monday, April 24, it appears the conversation is just getting underway on the best way to consolidate 9-1-1 services and operations.

The debate between commissioners and city officials in Louisiana started with a letter last week in which the commission stated they would no longer provide the city with $25,000 in annual funding for 9-1-1 operations in Louisiana.

The debate actually goes back much further over many years and many different commissions and city councils.

The letter from commissioners to Mayor Bart Niedner dated April 17 stated, “After much discussion and consideration of fiscal responsibility, we have decided it is in the best interest of the county to consolidate the 911 system. As a result, 2017 will be the last year the county will be providing the annual $25,000 funding to have a 911 satellite office in Louisiana.”

The letter went on to invite Niedner to discuss ideas about centralization of 9-1-1 services, funding and the path forward.

Niedner scheduled the Monday meeting and was joined by City Administrator Kelly Henderson, Chief of Police April Epperson and others.

Niedner explained that he took issue with the way the commission unilaterally made a decision to withdraw the funding that has been in place since 2003 for 911 operations in Louisiana without a real plan to move forward with centralization. Niedner noted that everyone agrees that centralization is the best move for the future, but added the commissioners should have put a committee together and hold public discussions on the proper way to move forward prior to a decision to remove funding.

Niedner added that he and the constituents in Louisiana are in favor of moving forward with a plan to have an independent centralized 911 service, but would not like to see the operation controlled by any certain office, such as the Pike County Sheriff’s Department. Niedner said it is difficult to see the removal of funding as anything other than a way to augment the current budget for the sheriff’s department.

Eastern District Commissioner Justin Sheppard said he has been tasked with moving forward the centralization of 911. He said that he has researched the way other counties have done this and noted he likes the Lincoln County’s methods. He further stated that he was working from the state statute RSMo 190.309. He added it suggests people who should sit on an advisory board such as the mayor and chief of police of the county seat which is Mayor Don Hunter and Chief Don Nacke. Sheppard added that he didn’t care who served on the new advisory panel, but that it should include people who are stakeholders and understood law enforcement.

Niedner offered to serve on a newly-formed advisory board and noted that the only way to move forward is with a robust public discussion that brings all parties to the table.

The background of how the county came to have different 911 operations is murky. In 1988, Louisiana passed a two percent telephone tax to fund operations. However, it doesn’t appear the tax was ever collected. In 1994 the county passed a tax of up to 15 percent on land lines to fund 911 operations. Henderson pointed out that there was some handshake agreements around that time that provided for Louisiana to continue its own operation for as long as it wanted in exchange for supporting the county-wide operation. Many at the meeting on Monday agreed they had either heard or knew of such agreements. However, there is no paper trail for current officials to go back and examine.

In 2003, then-Chief of Police Jim Graham requested funding in the amount of $25,000 annually for Louisiana’s 911 operations. It is the same amount that the Pike County Sheriff’s Department was receiving as well. That payment has continued to be made out of the 911 funds that are collected every year by the county. The county receives between $170,000-$200,000 annually from the land line tax, but the move to cellular phones has made that number dwindle every year.

Presiding Commissioner Chris Gamm said the letter that was sent to the City of Louisiana was to give city officials fair warning that they would no longer receive that annual funding. He pointed out the city’s budget year goes from June until June where the county’s is done by the calendar year. He said it was never the intention of the commission to leave Louisiana out of the discussion.

Niedner noted that receiving a letter like that left Louisiana city officials to wonder about the commission’s intentions.

Both Niedner and Chief Epperson questioned the commissioners about their plans for consolidating 911 services. Western District Commissioner Bill Allen said the 911 fund currently pays for all of the equipment and that there is a capability at the Sheriff’s Department to house the entire operation.

Sheriff Stephen Korte agreed. He added the department currently has 911 operations in the jail area. He said that it could be moved to another area that would stand alone.

“All the hardware is in place.”

Sheppard said he wants the new advisory board to work on a plan that works for everyone so that a transition can be made this year.

Chief Epperson pointed out there are four dispatchers who work for the Louisiana Police Department. She asked how the dispatchers would be selected and combined.

Niedner stressed the importance of the 911 operation to be independent of any other county agency, such as the sheriff’s department. He suggested the commissioners rescind their decision to pull funding from Louisiana until a plan for the consolidation is put in place. After more discussion, the commission voted unanimously to rescind the decision, though Gamm noted that funding after 2017 is unlikely for Louisiana.

“If push comes to shove, that letter just gets sent again,” he noted.

The county has a 911 director which is Sara Cunningham. She has held the position for several years and currently handles 911 addresses and has worked on the mapping. There is also a current advisory board, though commissioners agreed a new board would be put in place to implement the upcoming transition.

There were several officials at the meeting on Monday including Cunningham, Bowling Green Chief of Police Don Nacke, Bowling Green City Administrator Barb Allison and Clarksville Mayor Jo Anne Smiley.

Bowling Green currently contracts dispatching services during overnight hours with the Pike County Sheriff’s Department to save money. Clarksville has also paid for services in the past.

Sheppard said he plans to begin having meeting with a new advisory panel in place by June. He said if he had his way, the commission would pull funds from the sheriff’s department budget and all 911 expenses would be paid from the 911 fund and that the consolidated 911 service would continue to have a director that answered to the commission.

Niedner said he was pleased with aspects of the conversation on Monday. He added there is still a lot of work to be done to make consolidated 911 service a reality.

“It is unfortunate that the Commission initially choose to de-fund Louisiana’s 911 without so much as a conversation with us beforehand. I am glad that we had the opportunity to object and I applaud the Commissioners’ action to rescind their initial decision,” Niedner stated.

“The alternative would have meant double-taxing Louisiana for 911 by enforcing the existing tax authority in our district – not the most cooperative environment if the Commission’s goal is to establish a centralized 911 campaign. It remains of great concern, however, that the Commission attempted this unilateral action without a robust public conversation. In the absence of any plan, and given the clear lack of any research into current funding impacts and district authority, it is difficult to see this as anything other than an attempt to extend the Sheriff’s dispatch operation at the expense of Louisiana’s public safety.”

He added that he appreciated the frank conversation on Monday morning.

“I have confidence that they will proceed with the inclusion and transparency such decisions require. I look forward to working with them to find the best 911 solution for Pike County.”

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