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Taylor Co. 911 center seeks firm financial footing

by James Fisher

REGIONAL WRITER

The Taylor County 911 Center appears poised for a turnaround after several months of operating on a severely restricted budget, said Stuart Cayer, president of the center's three-member oversight board.

The center still is operating with a reduced number of dispatchers after having to lay off workers last fall, he said. But Cayer envisions a time when those positions could again be filled.

Just four full-time and two part-time dispatchers remain from what was once a 10-person staff. Except for peak times, such as Friday and Saturday nights, just one dispatcher works in the center, surrounded by computer consoles and telephones that go mostly unused.

Board members are looking into refinancing the loan that helped pay for much of the equipment and the center's building, Cayer said, which will put the board on better financial footing.

"We've still got an uphill battle and we need to keep an eye on where we are spending our money, but we really don't have a lot of expenses now," he said. "We've been making our payments and we're even catching up on some past due Bell Atlantic bills."

Taylor County Commission President Bob Weaver said overall, the center is functioning very well now.

"We're still trying to work on some different approaches to finances," he said. "The county's involved (and) the city's involved and that's the way it should be."

Cayer said the remaining staff, Interim Director Dave Holcomb and the board are committed to providing the best possible emergency service to the public.

Even a recent dispute between the center and the Taylor County Sheriff's Department did not deter Cayer.

"I think that was just some confusion about the dispatching situation," Cayer said.

The dispute revolved around who would dispatch sheriff's deputies -- the county's corrections officers, who also answer telephones at the department, or 911 dispatchers.

For a short time, Cayer said, all county emergency calls were answered by the West Virginia State Police. Since, dispatchers have returned to assigning deputies to calls.

"We decided that we need to work together," Cayer said. "This is a service profession and we want to provide that service. What we want to do is inform the public to limit 911 calls to actual emergent situations."

Financial questions last fall resulted in sudden and sweeping changes in the center and the oversight board.

All three board members and the center's director resigned, five of the 10 dispatchers were laid off and an audit was ordered.

Cayer said he believed the project was underfunded from the beginning.

"It appears that somehow everything just got out of whack," Cayer said. "For instance, they wanted (the center) to be inside the hospital originally and then they got their own building, and it kind of snowballed from there."

Cayer said a lack of proper oversight in the beginning probably led to many of the problems.

While they continue to work to improve the center's finances, Cayer and board members Harry White and Joan Lawrence meet at least once per month.

Cayer is optimistic that the light at the end of the tunnel is in fact the exit and not an oncoming train.

"Once we get the building and the equipment refinanced, we'll be able to get a better grip on all the financial aspects," he said. "Depending on future growth in Taylor County, I can see us able to hire (dispatchers) in the future. If the county is going to flourish, there will be opportunities for more revenue, so to speak, and more 911 responsibilities in terms of emergency calls."

Regional writer Jim Fisher can be reached at 626-1446.

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