Suburban E-911 holdsouts and county are on different frequencies

2014-06-08T00:00:00Z 2014-06-09T06:43:08Z Suburban E-911 holdsouts and county are on different frequenciesBill Dolan bill.dolan@nwi.com, (219) 662-5328 nwitimes.com
June 08, 2014 12:00 am  • 

CROWN POINT | Being out of the Lake County E-911 union doesn't seem like an emergency to Cedar Lake, St. John or Schererville leaders.

While Lake County officials are hurriedly spending $20 million on new communications gear, building radio towers and a call center and hiring dispatchers to meet a year-end launch deadline for their public safety system, officials of these three towns stand outside the frenzy, calmly weighing their options.

That may include the three towns going their own way by forming their own Public Safety Answering Point, or PSAP, to answer police, fire and emergency medical calls that would work in parallel with the larger county service.

"We still have a little bit more research to do into the option of a second PSAP," Cedar Lake Town Council President Randell C. "Randy" Niemeyer said last week.

Schererville Town Councilman Thomas Schmitt said no one has included him in those plans.

"I'm just not sure where they are with it," he said. "I know we have to make a move one way or another. I know the county is waiting on us."

The state has mandated Lake County to merge 17 municipal and county dispatch centers by year's end. Lake officials want one network and have talked Crown Point, Dyer, East Chicago, Gary, Griffith, Hammond, Highland, Hobart, Lake Station, Lowell, Munster, New Chicago, Merrillville and Whiting to join.

Cedar Lake, St. John and Schererville leaders have refused over doubts the county won't provide the same quick response time they now enjoy, but may raise their taxes in future to fund it.

County officials have offered verbal assurances the service will meet their expectations and the county, not the towns, will bear any additional cost, but county officials refuse to bow to demands by town officials for guarantees in writing.

This dispute began with a 2008 law that required every county to merge police, fire and emergency medical communications by 2015, not to correct deficiencies in service, but in anticipation of lower operational costs.

Lake County officials soon discovered the promised savings were illusory. It is now estimated the new system will cost $1.8 million more in its first year of operation than the combined expenses of current 17 dispatch centers.

And when the county told cities and towns how much money to contribute to its operation, defiant St. John officials first floated the idea of forming a second PSAP including most south-county suburban communities.

County officials responded by reducing their fiscal demands on the municipalities and the second PSAP proposal went inactive, until now.

Schmitt said he has heard the Cedar Lake, St. John and Schererville E-911 subcommittee members "are getting another meeting together to see what their next step is. I think they even were going downstate to get some legal advice also, to see if we want to try and have a PSAP separately."

Schererville Town Councilman Kevin Connelly added, "Maybe there is another option. I think it's a very strong possibility."

Brian Hitchcock, the county's E-911 director, disagrees if the three-town PSAP looks anything like last year's proposal.

"In my estimation, (the earlier model) was understaffed and it was underestimating the budget to make that run. As the model gets smaller, its gets a little more complicated as far as making it work. Consolidations work better, the bigger they get," he said.

"They may not realize when we make this consolidation change, we are moving away from the old 911 system, so the systems they presently have and those centers have to be changed, maybe at a cost to those communities," Hitchcock also warned.

Nicole Bennett, an attorney for the county E-911 service, said it is unclear how a two-PSAP model will pass the scrutiny of the Indiana Department of Local Government Finance, which must approve all local government spending.

She said the DLGF has made it clear it won't allow E-911 consolidation to result in double taxation where residents pay for both both county and town public safety dispatch centers.

"We don't know for sure what the DLGF will do, because this has never happened," she said, but she predicts the two warring sides will have to come to some kind of agreement.

Cedar Lake Town Councilman Robert H. "Bob" Carnahan said he has questioned his fellow officials about what the next step would be. "They told me we are going to hold out until we get our best deal," he said.

Lake County Council President Ted Bilski, D-Hobart, said late last week about the holdouts' demands, "I'm not in a position to bargain. We have decided to move forward."

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