CROWN POINT | Several communities may hang up on Lake County's push to consolidate emergency communications into a single county system as a luxury they cannot afford.
"When it first came out years ago, I was all in favor of it," Griffith Town Councilman Rick Ryfa said. "But, in this case, it's going to cost us more to consolidate. I don't think it will be a good situation for communities like Griffith."
Cedar Lake and Highland officials have expressed reservations with the $30 million model proposed by the advisory E-911 commission. That model, from the county's combined police and fire chiefs, replaces 18 community dispatch units with two major call centers and all-new communications gear and an operations budget that would cost millions more.
Those advocating consolidation warn rejection will mean millions of dollars in telephone user fees locals pay to support E-911 will be shipped downstate and may incite state government.
"It will cripple our 911 operations. It will cripple public safety," John Bushemi, the advisory E-911 commission attorney, said.
Lake County officials and consultants have been studying and preaching consolidation since the General Assembly mandated its completion by Dec. 31, 2014. But how to pay for it has become the question.
The Lake County Council refused last month to hold even a fact-finding hearing on a referendum on the Nov. 6 ballot to borrow the start-up costs in a one-time, 10-year-long tax bump.
County Councilwoman Christine Cid, R-East Chicago, who supported the E-911 referendum, said too many of her colleagues were frightened of a public backlash.
"Everyone campaigns on a pledge of no new taxes and they get elected. So you will never get the county council to pass a (permanent) local option income tax because the (Board of Lake County) commissioners would veto it."
Some public safety officials chided Lake County for courting political popularity over the public's safety needs.
"If you want a local option income tax, then every community council and mayor needs to pass a resolution in favor of the tax," Cid said.
Commissioner Gerry Scheub, D-Crown Point, chimed in.
"They don't want to do that," Scheub said. "An option income tax isn't paid by businesses or the steel mills. It's not a fair tax."
County Attorney John Dull challenged cities and towns to go over county officials' heads and pass their own County Economic Development Income Tax, which would generate about $30 million in taxes on local residents and workers.
All that's needed is the approval of city and town councils of communities that represent more than 50 percent of the county's population. He suggested Gary, Hammond, East Chicago, Hobart and a few other communities could form such a coalition.
Dull asked the E-911 commission's members to circulate his proposal.
But, "it looks like signing the interlocal agreement is signing a blank check," Ryfa said.
Dull said he fears the proposed interlocal agreement may be dead on arrival in some communities.
He suggested reducing the dispatch call centers from two to one, which might be more centrally located.
Dull said it's pointless for local officials to blame one another. "It's the Indiana General Assembly that did this to us."
State Sen. Jim Arnold, D-LaPorte, said, Lake County's complaints are news to him.
"Others have expressed concern about making it work, but in the end it did work," he said.
Arnold and State Rep. Charlie Brown, D-Gary, urged local officials to express their concerns directly to their Northwest Indiana legislative delegation.
However, Brown warns if local officials do nothing, Lake County may lose more than the $2.6 million to $3.9 million in state funds. "Some of my colleagues had said it should be more. It should include the loss of some property tax dollars so there will be teeth in the law.
"So there may be an attempt by downstate officials to add a 'sweetener,'" Brown said.