Liberty Township’s 911 system needs independent evaluation

There are facts and there are opinions surrounding Liberty Township’s 911 emergency telephone system, which means that any decision pertaining to its future will be steeped in controversy.

In arguing for the transfer of emergency dispatching from Liberty to Howland Township, Administrator Patrick J. Ungaro and the trustees point out that the system is a drain on the treasury. The 1.25-mill 911 levy, which was approved by the voters in March 2008, generates $283,000 a year, but the dispatch center’s operating cost is $302,963.

Board of trustees Chairman Stan Nudell believes the township could save about $200,000 if dispatching were transferred to Howland.

But opponents of change, led by the Liberty Fraternal Order of Police, warn of dire consequences.

“By virtue of the trustees’ refusal, to date, to place a renewal [levy] on the ballot … they have delivered a virtual death sentence to our community’s first line of defense,” FOP President Robert Altier said in a recent press release.

As both sides brace for what could be a pitched battle, the need for an independent evaluation of the system and its future is clear.

But how would the financially challenged township pay for it?

Ohio Gov. John Kasich, who is beginning his second year in office, has made government innovation a priority. In developing the state’s biennium budget last year, the Republican governor and the Republican controlled general assembly slashed funding across the board in order to eliminate a projected $8 billion shortfall. The Local Government Fund, which has become the lifeblood of counties, cities, townships and villages, took a major hit.

However, in order to ease the pain, Kasich and the legislature created a $40 million fund to help communities find ways of reducing their operating costs.

For instance, the governor has talked about communities banding together to purchase goods and services, and has touted consolidation of government operations.

Given that the residents of Liberty Township are divided on the issue of the 911 dispatching center transfer, an independent review is warranted. Ungaro and the trustees should ask the state for a grant from the $40 million set side to hire a firm to conduct it.

In addition to addressing the issues of cost and the “death sentence” warning from the FOP, the study should also seek to answer the following question: Will the renewal of the 911 levy at its current rate generate enough money to keep the system going?

Time to explore

Trustees have until August to decide whether to place the levy on the November general election, which will give them time to fully explore all aspects of the 911 system.

Nudell has already raised the possibility of a 1.5-mill levy being placed on the ballot to replace the 1.25 mills because of the township’s financial condition.

In 2008, Liberty, Hubbard, Niles, Newton Falls and Girard filed a lawsuit to void a plan enacted by the Trumbull County 911 Planning Commission that called for the county’s operation on Howland-Wilson Road in Howland to serve as the primary 911 call-answering point for the county, with Warren and Niles as backups.

Judge John M. Stuard of Trumbull County Common Pleas Court ruled that the committee’s plan was lawful.

The plan did not seek the elimination of dispatching operations in Liberty, Hubbard, Newton Falls and Girard, but did require that funding for upgrades to dispatching equipment would be taken away from them and given to the county, Warren and Niles.

The county system is working well and can accommodate additional communities.

The dispatchers in Liberty would be moved to Howland.

An independent review of the system is warranted — with the state picking up the tab.

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