CROWN POINT | The Lake County Council put the E-911 merger on hold Tuesday until its staffs can estimate how much a unified emergency communications system would cost the county and where to find the money.
Council members resisted repeated demands to sign an interlocal agreement Tuesday that would create a countywide E-911 system, despite the pleas of Sheriff John Buncich, his attorney John Bushemi, Lake County Commissioner Gerry Scheub, D-Crown Point, and Hobart Fire Chief Brian Taylor.
Scheub said, "We won't know how much it costs until March or April. This agreement doesn't have to involve any money. It only says we (county government) are lead agency."
Council attorney Ray Szarmach said, "The staffing and who pays for the benefits for E-911 is the 800-pound gorilla in the room. Our health insurance program isn't solvent."
Council members also delayed a smaller interlocal agreement for the sheriff to take over the town of Lowell's police and fire emergency communications.
Buncich warned that delaying a decision threatens to put the county's efforts to combine its current 17 community-based police and fire dispatch centers into one by Dec. 31, 2014.
"It's time to stop foot dragging," Buncich said. "This is a massive undertaking and the most important public safety project in Lake County at this time. The deadline is less than two years from today.
"Under state law, if any county fails to consolidate by the deadline, it loses all of its statewide 911 fees. That would be a loss of $2.6 million per year, a loss that would cripple public safety operations here at home."
Dante Rondelli, the council's finance manager, said the council hasn't been foot dragging. He said the state was asked to approve a $10.6 million budget for a unified E-911, but the council had to cancel it after state officials demanded more detailed information and the E-911 advisers didn't provide it.
Rondelli said he will examine municipal fire and police dispatch centers budgets as part of a forensic financial investigation to get a better estimate of what is now spent on E-911 communications.
Councilwoman Elsie Franklin, D-Gary, said, "The cities and towns don't want to give up a penny of their money. They want to shift it all here."
Councilwoman Christine Cid, D-East Chicago, said the state law authorizing E-911 mergers mandates cities and towns to contribute a countywide E-911 system "whether they want to or not."
Council President Ted Bilski, D-Hobart, said the council may hold a special E-911 meeting before the end of the month if Rondelli's investigation is concluded in time.