By Laura Katauskas | Enterprise Staff
Will County and local public safety officials have been grappling with a state mandate that requires the county to eliminate half of its six 911 dispatch centers.
The state legislation passed in May 2015 was meant to improve public safety by streamlining operations and reducing the number of call transfers between public safety answering points. The new law requires Will County’s Emergency Telephone System Board to submit a plan by July 1 that outlines how the consolidation, which must be completed by July 1, 2017, would occur.
For months, local agencies have been discussing the best possibilities and locations for its dispatch centers.
Bolingbrook Public Safety Director Tom Ross explained the rationale, saying the Joliet 911 dispatch would remain because it is the county’s busiest center. The second PSAP would be Wescom – a newly built center with 21 member police and fire agencies primarily on the western side of Will County, including Bolingbrook, Plainfield, Lockport and Crest Hill. Finally, the plan calls for a third new center that would combine agencies on the east side of the county.
Wescom Executive Director Steve Rauter said the issue of building a new center dates back to the initial plan and study for a new center on Caton Farm Road. The facility would have mirrored the Wescom footprint but was never carried out.
Will County Chief of Staff Nick Palmer said the plan was too expensive and never scaled back.
Meanwhile, the county is currently working on plans to construct a new sheriff’s department law enforcement facility at its Laraway Campus. Last month, the county announced its offer to include a dispatch center for those who were working on how and where to build the third center, including Eastcom in Crete, Lincolnway in Frankfort, the Will County Sheriff’s Department and the Romeoville 911 Center. While those PSAPs that would join what is now being called the Lincoln Way Communication Center would not have to pay construction costs, they would be responsible for ongoing operational costs.
County leaders had thought the plan would help avoid endless debates over where the new facility will be located and keep construction costs lower.
“By building a new, modern dispatch center on the county’s Laraway Road campus, we can improve public safety, become more efficient and realize long term savings for Will County taxpayers,” said County Speaker Jim Moustis when announcing the plan.
The county wasn’t expecting the backlash it received.
Backlash and double tax
Although those agencies looking for a new home as part of the state mandate approved of the plan, those that previously joined Wescom and are footing the bill for the 2014 construction of the building are crying foul.
Wescom built its new facility in Plainfield at $5.1 million with the buy in from member agencies, which are now responsible for nearly $275,000 in debt and make up 44 percent of the Will County population, according to Ross.
The county explained that the Laraway campus building is being paid for with Regional Transportation Authority sales tax dollars – the same taxes used to build county roads.
“That’s nice and in the spirit of collaboration, the problem is it doesn’t help Wescom,” said Ross. “What about us? Everyone in the county pays RTA taxes, plus we have to pay off the bond debt for the Wescom building. Now, these other agencies are getting free construction; that’s where the rub is. We feel the county has to do what is fair; it’s not fair to the residents.”
Ross said using RTA sales tax dollars puts Bolingbrook and other Wescom member residents at a disadvantage, essentially these residents are paying RTA taxes – 0.25 percent in sales tax on anything bought in the county – plus village taxes to cover the bond debt. This, according to Ross, creates the unfair advantage.
“Perception is reality,” he said. “When half of the county feels it’s unfair, then it’s unfair.”
However, Romeoville officials are on board with the plan. Frustrated with the state mandate that is requiring the village to move its services, which it recently invested more than $2 million in to, officials welcome an opportunity to not only benefit from the dispatch center but the possibility of board leadership, employee transfer, and a voice in its construction and best practices.
“We have done extensive analysis for this situation and it has been demonstrated that the Will County call center provides the best solution for us,” Romeoville Village Manager Steve Gulden said. “We are coming in this at a bit of a different standpoint. We just spent $2 million on our dispatch system, and now we have to fulfil an unfunded state mandate and move. We really aren’t gaining any savings here.”
Rauter said Wescom applauds the county for helping 911 centers but feels as if Wescom is being punished for being the leader, adding that he is just calling for a conversation on equality with the county.
However, Palmer stated that life isn’t always fair and said everyone pays RTA taxes, including individuals who pass through Will County. He added that it would have been nice if a conversation had happened before the resolutions came out.
“This is just counterproductive and is just not a road we want to go down,” Palmer said. “What if we start calculating percentages of how much RTA taxes are given to transportation in certain areas? All of a sudden, you could reach a certain allotment and not have enough funds dedicated to a town to fix the road. It just shouldn’t work that way.”
Bolingbrook, Wilmington, and the Homer and Minooka fire departments recently filed an opposing resolution stating that the county’s plan is severely misguided and unfair. Other agency members are now considering passing a similar resolution, calling on the county to revisit the plan and create a more equitable solution.
“We all have infrastructure and we know that this builds bridges and roads, but we are just calling on the county to sit down at the table and work out something that is fair and equitable for all those that are involved,” said Ross. “We are just saying that we need to take another look at this; it’s inherently unfair. Intentions were good, but I think there has been an oversight and this wasn’t thought all the way through.”
In addition, Rauter calls into question the true meaning of consolidating the 911 dispatch centers in the first place. Looking at efficiency, he stated that having agencies like Romeoville move to Laraway wouldn’t cut down the number of call transfers but could increase the number.
Yet, Romeoville Police Chief Mark Turvey completely disagrees and believes the move would increase safety for its residents.
Rauter said seven of its Wescom agencies border Romeoville, essentially making it less likely to transfer a call repeatedly due to familiarity of the territory.
“It would just make more sense to have everything under one roof,” said Rauter.
But, Turvey said new technology and the fact that the majority of calls are coming off of cell towers means that calls can be answered easier, and Romeoville would benefit from the consolidation with the Will County Sheriff’s Department.
“This is an endless argument,” Palmer said. “This is one of those cases where we have to agree to disagree. There is no plan to stop this project.”
Palmer reiterated that the final cost isn’t locked in stone and that the agencies are not getting a building completely for free, noting operational costs, percentages per agency and possibly capital costs.
“No one seems to acknowledge that this new center will actually provide a benefit for Wescom and can act as a back up to their system, as well,” he added.
Palmer said when you compare the size of the proposed building – the total complex is 90,000 square feet – with the dispatch center utilizing only 15,000 square feet, the building would be nearly 90 percent county occupied.
The design stage is about 50 percent complete, with hopes of breaking ground in late summer or early fall and completed by 2017.
In the end, Palmer said he hopes everyone involved can see the big picture, where in essence, once all centers are consolidated, all agencies will see some savings.
“It is just not a strong argument that there would be a reduction in call transfers,” said Turvey. “In fact, we believe the number of calls being transferred would be reduced if we move to Laraway. It will not decrease, it will increase safety.”