Richfield faces 911 dilemma

A city proud of its services may ask Hennepin County to take over dispatching to save money, an idea that is drawing protests.

Richfield, which just three years ago decided to retain its own emergency dispatch service, has become the latest in the parade of cities to approach Hennepin County about providing that service.

City Manager Steve Devich said that if the county provided 911 services, the city would save $700,000 a year. It also could avoid spending $350,000 to $400,000 this year to bid with other governments for new 911 software.

The City Council must decide by June 15 whether to participate in buying the new software, making that decision a default vote on whether to give up local 911 service. County Sheriff Rich Stanek has already told Richfield that the county could provide 911 service next year, subject to County Board approval.

Like other county residents, people in Richfield already pay for county dispatch services through their taxes, and the only transition charge would be $75,000 to $80,000 to make city technology compatible with county equipment.

But Richfield’s dispatchers have started an e-mail campaign urging residents to lobby the council against the change. Three years ago, when a change was discussed, senior citizens spoke out, saying they were worried that response time would suffer if the county provided dispatch services.

“Local dispatching is something that is near and dear to the heart of the people of Richfield,” Devich said. “This is a very emotional discussion for the City Council.

“It’s a hard decision. But we have to look at how many of these services a city like Richfield can provide with our limited tax base.”

Hennepin County is building a $34 million communications center in Plymouth that will open in fall 2014. The county now provides dispatch services to 24 police departments and 20 fire departments. Hopkins dropped its local dispatch service this year in favor of county 911 service, and Golden Valley will do the same next year.

Minneapolis, Bloomington, Edina, Eden Prairie, Minnetonka and St. Louis Park have their own dispatch services.

Stanek said that when Hopkins dispatch closed, all of its dispatchers who wanted jobs with the county were hired. The same would happen with Richfield’s eight dispatchers, he said, provided they passed background checks.

The sheriff said transitions are “seamless” when a city switches 911 service to the county. Especially in situations that require the response of more than one jurisdiction, coordination is easier when everyone is on the same frequency, he said.

Stanek would not say whether other cities have approached the county about 911 service. “We have discussions with them all the time, but we believe in local autonomy,” he said. “They know they can come to us.”

For Richfield, the City Council’s June 11 decision about whether to spend hundreds of thousands on the existing dispatch center is something of a repeat of spring 2010. The city faced deadline decisions then about the building of its new City Hall and couldn’t get a timely answer from the county about whether it could take over 911 service.

At the time, Devich warned council members that the city eventually might have to consider asking the county for service because of the cost of keeping an independent 911 program.

Devich said last week that if the city keeps its 911 service, in 2015-16 it will again have to upgrade dispatch equipment at a cost of $400,000 to $500,000. At a time when the city is facing upcoming costs that include street improvements and bond repayments, cost is an issue.

“Do I wish I didn’t have to deal with this? Yes,” Devich said. “But it’s my job to point out potential land mines and bring up issues that are uncomfortable for the City Council and the city.”

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