A commitment for better public safety could come through an effort to renew the Penny for Pasco sales tax in the coming years. Tuesday, with lots of questions, but little dissent, Pasco County, its Sheriff's Office and police and fire departments from four municipal governments agreed to consider merging multiple dispatching operations. Implementation is years away, but the first step is welcome.
Though better efficiency, fewer opportunities for dropped calls, and less personnel costs would be long-term benefits, the idea requires a significant up-front investment in an upgraded radio dispatching system.
Close to a decade ago, Sheriff Bob White put that cost at $11 million. It would not be unreasonable to double that projected expenditure to rebuild the emergency dispatching infrastructure to allow the Sheriff's Office, Pasco Fire/Rescue, Dade City Police and police and fire departments from Zephyrhills, Port Richey and New Port Richey to communicate via the same system.
Merging the dispatching systems was a key recommendation from a recent consultant's study of Pasco County's Fire Rescue operations as a way to realize potential savings amid constrained government budgets. The question from White on Tuesday was whether the county had a willingness to finance the initial system upgrade.
Nobody suggested a funding source, but here's one: Penny for Pasco. The one-cent-on-the-dollar sales tax approved by voters in 2004 is scheduled to expire Dec. 31, 2014, unless voters renew it. A portion of the tax proceeds already are earmarked for public safety equipment and for municipal capital spending. Improved public safety communications should be one of the reasons to ask voters to commit to the tax for a second 10 years. The likely alternatives are borrowing money or awaiting an economic rebound and the resulting increase in property tax values to finance such a system.
Even without a cost savings, the county-hired consultant, International City/County Management Association, said the entities should merge dispatching to enhance public service. It is hard to disagree with that logic.
In Pasco County, dispatchers for the Sheriff's Office and Fire Rescue sit in the same building, but are separated by a partition and answer to different bosses. If the emergency call to 911 requires a law officer, the Fire Rescue dispatcher must transfer the call to a person on the other side of the wall or to a local police department. Callers then must repeat their request for assistance. Land line calls from the cities go directly to the local departments, but cell phone calls, about 65 percent of all calls nationally, are directed to the county dispatch system before being relayed to the appropriate city agency.
Local governments trying to identify tens of millions of dollars in budget cuts over the next several years cannot justify paying for an unnecessary redundancy if a better alternative is on the other side of the wall.