Calling on Hennepin County to handle 911 service

  • Star Tribune staff writers
  • April 14, 2012 - 8:33 PM

Two suburbs looking to save money are asking Hennepin County to take over their dispatch services, heating up a debate over whether the county should charge cities for the service.

At the same time, the county is digging into plans to open a $33.75 million dispatch center in Plymouth by 2014, which would include capacity to handle additional communities. Golden Valley would make the switch to the county-level service when the new building opens, while Hopkins would make the switch next year.

"It's my belief we have nothing to lose by asking," Golden Valley Police Chief Stacy Carlson told the City Council last week, adding that the city might be able to save money, without any change in service, if the county takes over.

Hopkins made the same request for dispatch help last month, estimating that it could save $300,000 a year if it turned the service over.

But the County Board is divided on whether to continue to provide the sheriff's dispatch system for no charge or require suburbs to pay a fee.

Commissioner Mark Stenglein, whose district includes Golden Valley, said that the new center makes a good case for reassessing county policy.

"I don't think the county can sustain that. ... There are going to have to be some kind of charges," he said.

But Commissioner Jan Callison opposes charging suburbs for dispatching. The goal should be a unified, cost-effective dispatch system, she said, and tacking on charges could defeat that.

Callison represents Hopkins, where the police chief estimated that joining the county system would cut the cost per call from $3.99 to 17 cents.

Thirty-six Hennepin County cities use county dispatchers, including 23 police departments and 19 fire departments. Minneapolis handles its own calls.

Bloomington, Eden Prairie, Edina, Minnetonka, Richfield and St. Louis Park intend to keep their own services.

Hoping for savings

The dispatch issue has been somewhat dormant for two years, since Golden Valley first asked the County Board to transfer its dispatching to the Sheriff's Office. At the time, the suburb was paying St. Louis Park more than $300,000 a year to handle its calls.

Commissioners denied the request, worrying that more calls might overtax the current system despite assurances from Sheriff Rich Stanek.

Stanek opposes charging suburbs for dispatching, arguing along with Callison that it's a mandated service that residents already pay for through property taxes.

Golden Valley contracted with Edina to handle its dispatch calls after being turned down by the county. Golden Valley officials praise Edina's service and say the partnership has saved their city about $100,000 a year.

Still, Golden Valley pays Edina almost $178,000 a year, and joining with the county in 2014 would seem to promise substantial savings.

"I hope the starting point is no charge at all, but we'll wait and see what they say," said Mayor Shep Harris.

Golden Valley City Manager Thomas Burt says it's a matter of fairness, since taxpayers already support county dispatch services they don't receive. If the county refuses the city, it could be the basis for a challenge at the Legislature, he said.

But Burt also acknowledged that Golden Valley had at least two other chances to join with the county, the last in 2003. Both times, the city decided to keep its independent service.

Open for discussion

Suburbs that didn't jump on the county's service when it was offered should have to "pay some kind of entry fee," Hennepin County Board Chair Mike Opat said.

He said he opposed charging fees to suburbs currently using sheriff's dispatchers because county officials assured them they wouldn't be charged for the foreseeable future.

Hennepin County Administrator Richard Johnson said that architects are developing design plans for the new dispatch center, which will be built next to the county workhouse. Construction bids may be solicited by late summer.

"We're going to design it for both growth for ourselves, but also to service other communities if they wish to join the county system," Johnson said.

Johnson said the county is doing a study on the dispatch center, its cost and possible savings that would come from consolidating services. Whether suburbs should continue to use the sheriff's dispatching for no charge or pay a fee to the county is "open for discussion," he said.

Callison said that when county commissioners proposed to build a new dispatch center, they didn't say they were going to charge suburbs to use it. A new facility is needed because the current one is small and antiquated, she said. But the timing of designing the new facility while the future of the county's dispatching is being scrutinized is fortuitous.

"It's an opportunity," she said. 612-673-4455 612-673-7380 • Twitter: @smetan

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