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Taylor Co. split over 911 merger

by Cathy Bonnstetter

CORRESPONDENT

GRAFTON -- Although a late March rally showed strong support for a solo 911 system, Taylor County residents remain deeply divided over emergency response.

The system has run in the red from its 1998 inception and has racked up about $250,000 in unpaid bills.

County commissioners say joining with the Harrison County E-911 system is the fiscally-responsible way to keep local service up and running.

Critics of that plan worry Harrison dispatchers will be unfamiliar with Taylor's back roads. About 200 supporters of a county-based system gathered outside the Grafton Wal-Mart March 30.

Here is an overview of the arguments:

The case for merger

"The original 911 board tremendously underestimated what it costs to run the center," said County Commissioner Bob Weaver.

"Their budget was based on a $1.50 charge. We didn't want the rate to be any higher, and they presented a budget that showed they could run the center on that. They ended up employing more people and, within just a few months, it was apparent they had a problem."

The service now runs with four dispatchers and a director.

"The commission has no intent to do away with it, but to maintain the infrastructure with only 5,700 households is not practical," Weaver continued.

"All the alternatives have led back to going with another county. Harrison won't take on this task unless they know they can do it."

Part of Taylor County -- Flemington -- is already served by Harrison. Commissioner Jim Kinsey lives in that area.

"I've always been impressed with the Harrison County service," he said. "I've used it, and as a commissioner, I've never heard one complaint about it. But, we will look at all the options."

A financial audit of Taylor County's system points toward raising the 911 rate on residents' monthly phone bills from the original $1.50 to $3.50 or even $3.85. Tentatively, an arrangement with Harrison County is believed to leave the fee at $1.50.

Another proponent of a merger is Geoff Marshall, Flemington volunteer fire department chief. He goes on 60-70 calls a year and is pleased with the Harrison County arrangement.

"Harrison County is probably one of the top four or five programs in the entire state," Marshall said. "They have all the latest technology, and we have not had a bit of trouble.

"The dispatchers originally came down and drove the area to familiarize themselves with landmarks. They have maps, and we have an extensive database with two pages of landmarks just for Flemington that they can go through."

Fred Smart, bureau chief for the Harrison County system, said it does not matter where the dispatchers are housed.

"The people responding to the calls are still the same people," Smart said. "The dispatchers do not have to know where 500 Main St. is because the people who are going already know.

The case for going it alone

But many Taylor County residents believe that merging with Harrison County may not only jeopardize residents' safety, it could send a poor development message to companies looking to locate there.

"There are so many rural back alleys here," said Amy Summers, Taylor emergency squad president, paramedic and registered nurse.

"If something bad has happened, I'm going to be busy getting my stuff ready to go as soon as the ambulance stops. I'm not going to be up front with the map telling the driver where to go."

Grafton City Fire Chief Wayne Beall also wants to see the service stay local.

"The Harrison County system works great," he said. "I'm not saying they can't dispatch from there, but we're a small county, and it's a more personal service. If it can be fixed, we want to keep it."

Bob Gable, Thornton fire chief, has also questioned how well the 911 Center is using the money it already has, recently filing a complaint with the state Public Service Commission alleging 911 fees had inappropriately been used to purchase a 911 building.

County officials formally denied the charge this week, saying the purchase funds were a loan from Grafton and that the complaint should be dismissed. The state commission, which regulates 911 systems in addition to utilities, has not made a decision in the case.

What's ahead?

County commissioners pledge to conduct a public meeting before making any final decision. Should they decide on a merger, Smart does not anticipate the change for at least six months.

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