Should Liberty, Girard be in county's center?
A commissioner called the 911 director 'the obstructionist' to change.
WARREN -- Bringing Liberty Township and Girard into the Trumbull County 911 family would be like getting distant relatives to sit at the same table during a family feud.
Inviting Liberty, Girard city and more communities into the county's 911 operation is recommended by RCC Consultants Inc., however.
"I think you should move to consolidate Liberty and Girard as soon as possible," Marc W. Bono of RCC told county commissioners Wednesday.
"They're going to have to be fairly creative if they want the politics to work," said Patrick Ungaro, Liberty Township administrator. There's some bad blood between the township and Trumbull County 911 Center, he explained when contacted about the idea.
"Philosophically, I agree. Consolidation will come -- maybe not in my lifetime, but it will come. It's the right thing to do," Ungaro said.
Girard Mayor James Melfi said the city would be willing to consider joining, provided county 911 can assure the city would get sufficient savings from a merger. Also, the county has to prove that its technology "will operate the way ours does, that it will safeguard our citizens."
Girard Police Chief Frank Bigowsky maintained that Girard's dispatch serves the city "much, much better" than the county would be able to. "I have no intention of merging with Trumbull County 911," he said.
A way to ease costs
Trumbull County now bears the greatest cost for staffing and equipping its 911 center in Howland Township, and increasing the participants and their payments would help address this problem, according to RCC's analysis. Liberty and Girard's cost-sharing formula for 911 may have to be different from the townships' and a radio coverage and capacity study would be needed, Bono said.
Tim Gladis, county 911 director, said he also believes it's inevitable that Liberty and Girard will eventually come on board and that any obstacles are not insurmountable. "We have to cooperate to survive," he said. "Economic crisis is going to be the mother of cooperation."
Liberty quit the county system in 1998. A few years ago, Ungaro said, the township expressed interest in rejoining, but didn't get a welcoming response from the county. Also, the public didn't want to lose the dispatching center in Liberty.
Ungaro said it would take "a pretty decent deal" for Liberty to rejoin.
The 911 operation does put stress on Liberty's budget. Ungaro said past recommendations showed a merger with the county would have saved the township $100,000 to $150,000 annually.
The township's other suggested options for savings have included merging with Girard, or a communications levy, Ungaro said.
Melfi said Girard's total costs are about $250,000 annually to maintain its service. "Obviously there's a lot of room to save money, if there's an agency out there willing to do that," he said.
Bigowsky, however, said Girard has too much invested in its dispatching center to lose it.
"Most of our calls, including emergency calls, don't come in 911; they come in over our business line, and I think the citizens are used to that," he said.
The police chief said he's aware of the city's fiscal emergency and explained he'd be open to other dispatching operations merging with Girard, though he doesn't support Girard moving to Liberty's facility -- which also has been considered. He said his main concerns are safety of his officers and efficiency.
Trumbull's 911 Center is 80 percent funded by the county and 20 percent by member communities. Liberty, Girard, Newton Falls, Warren Township, Niles, Hubbard and Lordstown have their own dispatching centers. The 911 center dispatches for 22 townships, four villages, Cortland and the sheriff.
The problem, RCC found, is that the townships' contribution to 911 was locked at a set range regardless of actual costs. This forces the county to fund equipment replacement and wage increases, and take on additional duties.
Overhauling that formula, the report says, could involve a two-tiered payment per township of 50 percent based on usage and 50 percent based on population; a one-time fixed upward adjustment of the townships' shares; or the county picking up the entire cost through a sales tax or some sort of assessment on residents.
"It's my personal opinion that we'll never see consolidation unless and until the county funds the system completely, so local governments can consolidate into the center for free over here," Gladis said.
"That's not a solution and put it right out of your mind because the money's not there," Commissioner Paul Heltzel said during the presentation -- calling Gladis "the obstructionist" to making changes and suggesting perhaps finding someone "who can make it work."
Heltzel, in his first term, bristled when Gladis said he was new at the job. "I'm new, but I learn fairly quickly and I put a lot of time on this," he responded.
In May, commissioners approved 911 layoffs to ensure enough money will be available to keep the department running through year's end. Five dispatchers and one supervisor were cut. The RCC report tells local governments that keeping the county's 911 operation intact is better than returning to the idea of many local answering points.