ST. JOHN | A plan to split Lake County into north and south E-911 emergency centers also is dividing municipal and county officials struggling over how to pay for future police and fire dispatch services.
Public safety leaders have been working for five years to consolidate 17 town, city and county communications centers into a single countywide network likely cost $40 million in telephone and radio communications hardware and more than $7 million each year to staff.
They must compete their work before Dec. 31, 2014, or lose at least $2.6 million in annual E-911 funding under a state mandate.
The county estimates the annual cost to each community ranges from $1.2 million for Gary to less than $17,000 for the town of New Chicago in property taxes they already spend on local police and fire communications.
St. John Town Manager Steven Kil told a gathering of police and fire chiefs and county officials Thursday the single-county E-911 plan is too costly and inefficient for many rural and suburban communities, like his, which have low police-call volume.
He wants Cedar Lake, Crown Point, Dyer, Griffith, Highland, Lowell, Munster, Schererville, St. John and county police who cover rural south county to form a separate public safety answering point, or PSAP. It would save the 10 police and fire services more than a million dollars in serving about 40 percent of the county's population, where 28 percent of all public safety service calls are made.
That would leave East Chicago, Gary, Hammond, Hobart, Lake Station, Merrillville, New Chicago and Whiting to form their own PSAP to service nearly three quarters of county's total police calls a higher cost than the one-county plan.
Lake County Commissioner Roosevelt Allen, D-East Chicago, and Brian Hitchcock, who county officials recently hired to oversee their one-county E-911 model, attacked St. John's plan as illegal and impractical.
Hitchcock, who has guided E-911 consolidations for two decades, said St. John is underestimating the cost a south county-only system.
Nicole Bennett, legal counsel for the county E-911 consolidation, said if St. John or other communities refuse to join the countywide plan, the county will lose $2.6 million in user fees paid by county telephone users. She said half that money is paid to AT&T to provide current 911 telephone services.
She said state officials do not give local government any option about shifting property taxes now earmarked for city and town 911 police and fire budgets to a consolidated county E-911 service. She said the towns are only be asked to contribute a quarter of their public safety income tax revenue for only the next eight years to pay for communications infrastructure.
Kil said St. John officials will lobby to get the state law changed. "We aren't going to stop," Kil said. "I say we just don't sit here and take it. If we come up with something that makes senses, legislators will embrace it."
Public safety officials expressed concern that waiting for St. John's lobbying efforts could takes months. Sheriff John Buncich said they can no longer afford any more delays.
Lowell Town Councilman Phillip Kuiper said the St. John proposal sounds interesting and even if it turns out to be impractical, St. John should be allowed to develop a report on the financial implications, so city and town officials won't feel they have been denied a viable option before being asked to sign away millions in tax revenues to the county.
The sheriff and chiefs agreed to let the countywide and Kil plans go forward — and left local government officials decide between them later this fall.
Tom Dabertin, a county consultant on E-911, said state legislators may attend the next meeting of the E-911 advisory board of police and fire chiefs this fall to answer questions about state law.