Richfield has delayed a decision on whether to seek 911 service from Hennepin County, opting to gather more information and wait for dispatch bids from two neighboring suburbs.

Pushing a decision back also gives residents more time to comment, City Council members said last week.

The council had faced a deadline for bidding on expensive dispatch software last week that effectively would have forced a decision on whether to keep or drop the city's independent 911 center. That deadline was extended, giving the city until mid-July to decide whether to keep its own dispatch or seek service from another provider.

The decision has significant financial import for Richfield. Operating the dispatch center with eight full-time and part-time dispatchers costs about $700,000 a year. The city has to decide whether to make a necessary software upgrade this summer, which will cost an estimated $382,000. By 2016, the city would have invested another $350,000 to $400,000 to keep up with hardware standards.

If the city got service from Hennepin County beginning next year, the only cost would be $75,000 to $80,000 to make the city's technology compatible with the county's. Richfield residents already support the county's 911 service through their taxes. Hennepin County Rich Stanek has said Richfield's dispatchers could work for the county, providing they pass background checks.

But some Richfield residents are worried that service would suffer if dispatch came from outside the city, something City Manager Steve Devich acknowledged to the council last week.

"People are afraid of losing a service that is essential to life and safety," he said. "I would argue that … there would be a similar level of service to what we have now, with expert people."

Hopkins recently switched its 911 service to the county. That city's police chief, Mike Reynolds, told the Richfield council that since the switch, there has been no change in speed of response to calls from his city. While the change wasn't easy, he said, "We worked through any bumps in the road. … We have found no substantial difference."

Richfield Fire Chief Wayne Kewitsch told council members that if the city switched providers, he believed 911 service would be comparable to what it has now.

"Do I like having our own dispatch? Yes," he said. "But the city faces some cost issues."

The council informally decided to wait for bids from Bloomington and Edina to come in, get more information from Hennepin County and get more public comment before making a decision about a month from now.

Hennepin County is opening a $34 million communications center in Plymouth in 2014. The county provides 911 service to 24 police departments and 20 fire departments. Golden Valley will get 911 service from the county next year.

In addition to Richfield, Minneapolis, Bloomington, Eden Prairie, Edina, Minnetonka and St. Louis Park have their own dispatch centers. □