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Pasco commission considers merger of 911 calls

NEW PORT RICHEY — Pasco commissioners Tuesday zeroed in on what could be one of the most controversial recommendations laid out in a new consultant's report:

Consolidate the emergency dispatch operations of Pasco Fire Rescue, the Pasco County Sheriff's Office and the municipalities.

Such a merger would overhaul a long-established way of responding to emergency calls, a system that critics say is disjointed and rooted in turf battles.

"You have a lot of work to do, frankly," Leonard Matarese, director of public safety for consultant International City/County Management Association, told commissioners at a workshop Tuesday. "This is a hashed-up system."

The discussion also touched on alternative ideas for funding fire services, which staff will research. But the focus at the workshop was streamlining the dispatch system.

Pasco Fire Rescue is the primary answering point for 911 calls. Calls for police services are relayed to the Sheriff's Office dispatch, which occupies a space at the same west Pasco call center, on the other side of an office wall. Most cell phone calls, even if they are made within cities, are relayed first to the county dispatch center. Calls from landlines within the cities go to city dispatch centers.

Besides duplicating services, this patchwork system is vulnerable to dropped calls and time delays, the consultant said.

Commissioner Michael Cox said he had been frustrated by previous opposition from Sheriff Bob White to consolidating the systems.

"I'm a little bit tired of it," Cox said. "And I think we ought to do more consolidation."

"We really have been fragmented, and obviously we need to look toward consolidation," Commissioner Ann Hildebrand said.

White has resisted previous talk of consolidating the dispatch systems, saying that having his office in charge of public safety calls makes him more accountable to citizens should something go wrong.

"As a constitutional officer, he's the one elected to be in charge of public safety," Capt. Chris Nocco, who attended Tuesday's workshop, said during a break.

Sheriff's spokesman Kevin Doll said White remains opposed to anything that would take away his authority over the system. The ICMA report says fire rescue should be the lead agency.

Doll said that White may be amenable, however, to a consolidated system that puts his office in charge.

"He's not pursuing that, but he'd be open to something of that nature," said Doll, adding that in many counties 911 is under the Sheriff's Office.

Just under a year ago, White was floating a proposal to take over more than just dispatch.

After a group of firefighters approached him, White said he figured he could take over fire rescue from the county and save millions of dollars. That idea went nowhere.

Said Doll: "He's not pushing it. He was never pushing it. … He has not made any attempt to approach the county about that."

Chairwoman Pat Mulieri anticipated what could be resistance from all sides when the agencies meet. "I think there can't be a lot of finger-pointing," she said.

New Port Richey police Chief Martin Rickus said Tuesday in a phone interview that he hadn't had a chance to study the report. But Rickus, who retires in June, said he would be open to dispatch merger talks.

"It's the way we've been doing it since 911 came into existence," he said. "(But) the cost of doing dispatch has gone up like everything else has. I guess you just have to have an open mind."

The ICMA report also recommended making better use of volunteer firefighting units, upgrading technology and improving the way the department does its ambulance billing.

Fire Chief Anthony Lopinto fished for some direction from commissioners on the report's recommendation about volunteers, a potential source of conflict for career firefighters, but never really got any.

Instead, commissioners focused heavily on the dispatch consolidation, which the consultant called his top recommendation.

In addition, Cox brought up another issue: changing the way the county pays for fire services.

Right now, property owners in unincorporated Pasco pay taxes into a firefighting fund. Because of tanking property values, that fund is suffering shortfalls that have resulted in roughly 40 vacancies.

Cox brought up what he said could be a "revenue neutral" formula to split fire charges between a property tax and a flat fee assessed on each property owner. Several commissioners said they may be willing to support that and asked county staff to look into that issue as well.

In 2002, Commissioner Ted Schrader pitched a similar proposal, which would have assessed residents a flat $40 fee plus property taxes while commercial and industrial properties paid fees based on square footage.

That proposal died in a 3-2 vote, after critics said it would have placed a heavier burden on businesses and lower-income residents.

Asked later why commissioners didn't raise the tax rate to generate more revenue, Cox said a flat fee would be more transparent to property owners. "I think it shows people what they're paying for," he said.

Jodie Tillman can be reached at jtillman@sptimes.com or (727) 869-6247.

Pasco commission considers merger of 911 calls 04/20/10 [Last modified: Tuesday, April 20, 2010 9:20pm]

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