County leaders sign ‘historic’ agreement for joint dispatch

In what one county official called a "historic night," members of the Huntington County Council signed an agreement on Monday, Feb. 25, to operate an emergency dispatch center jointly with the city of Huntington.

"This has been 20 years in the making," Huntington County Commissioners President Leon Hurlburt said.

The same agreement was scheduled to be presented the following morning to the Huntington Common Council for its approval.

The agreement will spell an end to separate emergency dispatch centers operated by the county and the city, a money-saving proposition for both entities.

In 2014, Hurlburt said, the county will realize about $160,000 in savings through the joint venture, while the city's savings will run about $130,000. The savings will be realized in large part by eliminating the need for duplicate equipment and the elimination of two dispatchers through attrition.

The new joint dispatch center will be located on the second floor of the Huntington County Jail and is set to open on July 1 following a renovation of the facility.

Construction costs will be split 50-50 between the county and the city, with each entity paying approximately $154,000.

The county council agreed Monday to pay an additional $119,000 to renovate other space on the second floor of the jail for an emergency operations center to be used by the Emergency Management Agency and a squad room for the Huntington County Sheriff's Department. The council has yet to decide whether to pay for that project with county general fund money or an appropriation from the public safety local option income tax fund.

Once the joint dispatch center is up and running, the city will pay 60 percent of the operating costs, while the county will cover 40 percent. County Commissioner Larry Buzzard said that split - which will be reviewed annually - was based on the amount of money each entity had budgeted for dispatch operations in 2013, the number of dispatchers each entity currently employs and the number of emergency calls originating in the city and the county. Approximately 70 percent of emergency calls come from the city and 30 percent from the county, Buzzard said.
City and county dispatchers are now on different pay schedules, but their pay will be equalized as of July 1. Along with that, all dispatchers will be required to bring their certifications up to the same level.

"There's been a lot of hard work put into this," said EJ Carroll, chief of the Huntington Police Department, who serves as chair of the central dispatch committee.

"I'm so impressed," said Huntington County Councilman Shane Bickel. Bickel praised the cooperation of representatives of both the city and the county, something that was missing in earlier attempts to merge the two dispatch centers.

"It should have happened years ago," Bickel said.

The only uncertainty remaining on the county's part is what fund the county council will use to pay for construction of the emergency operations center and the squad room.

The possibility that his fellow county council members might fund the renovation with money from the public safety LOIT fund - rather than taking it from the county general fund - concerns Bickel, who has been pushing to use money from the LOIT fund to increase the number of deputies on the Huntington County Sheriff's Department.

Although the council has agreed to hire one additional deputy, Bickel, who works as a city police officer, says more are needed.

"We're 17 years behind," be said, citing increasing crime and the influx of new drugs over the past 17 years. "We need to look at adding three or four ... We have some problems here, this shortage of police officers."

A decision on what fund will be used to pay for the renovation will be made at a future meeting.