Costs of 911 plan concern area leaders

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ROCKFORD - The plan to consolidate emergency 911 dispatch services in Winnebago County is causing concern for top officials in Rockton, Roscoe and South Beloit.

On Nov. 27, municipalities across the county received word of just how much the new services would cost each agency - most of whom, including the three northern Stateline Area communities - did not previously pay for dispatch services.

A letter from Rockford Fire Chief Derek Bergsten said the estimated annual cost for running the center would sit at $6.1 million, with Stateline Area officials saying the move would strain already cash-strapped municipalities.

The figure is unclear as to whether or not it would remain at the total amount announced, or would drop following equipment and information-technology purchases made in the first year.

The consolidation of dispatch centers has been discussed since 2015, with services provided by the Rock County Sheriff's Office to 16 outlying communities set to be combined with the Rockford 911 Center, along with hiring new staff in Rockford.

To cover the costs, Rockford police are set to pay $3.1 million and the sheriff's office will contribute $1.4 million. Both agencies account for nearly 75 percent of all law enforcement personnel in the county.

In the recent correspondence from Rockford officials to outlying county agencies, Rockton will be asked to pay $182,926; Roscoe $145,468; and South Beloit $146,000.

Costs for the municipalities were drafted based upon the number of sworn officers employed by each agency, according to Bergsten's letter obtained by the Beloit Daily News. Rockton has 19 total officers, four of whom work only during special events like parades and Old Settlers Days, according to Rockton Police Chief Stephen Dickson. Roscoe has 16 officers, while South Beloit has 11 officers on staff, with 13 budgeted.

South Beloit Police Chief Pat Hoey, who previously served in the Rockford Police Department as an assistant chief involved in early consolidation talks, said the effort was "important to have consolidation." But he recognized the shock felt by all municipalities.

Hoey said the early discussions followed similar trends currently circulating, noting consultants in the early 2000s noted the consolidation wouldn't save money for "quite some time."

Hoey said he hoped the county would consider a different cost model, combining either call volumes alone or both call volumes and sworn staff.

Dickson and Roscoe Village Administrator Scott Sanders said the process had lacked communication or input from smaller communities. Previously, all three municipalities had not been required to pay for dispatch services. Dickson questioned why the contribution rates varied.

"They can paint the picture however they want, but it's not fair," Dickson said.

Rockford and county officials have said the consolidation would eliminate the need to transfer thousands of calls annually. Winnebago County Board Chairman Frank Haney could not immediately be reached for comment.

"I don't think any response time has suffered in the past," Dickson speculated.

With being left out of the decision-making process, officials in Rockton, Roscoe and South Beloit said they were considering a feasibility study to determine whether an independent dispatch facility would be more affordable by pooling resources.

"If there's a service, you should have to pay for it," Sanders said. "That's the reality of it. It's frustrating not to have input and to be presented a scenario with little or no say on the process."

Officials stressed the outlying feasibility study was in its early stages, with Sanders noting that Loves Park officials have indicated interest in the idea. Loves Park previously paid the county $140,000 annually for dispatch services. Under the consolidation plan, the municipality would be required to pay $355,399.

The effort picked up steam this year as the sheriff's office accounts for $4.3 million in cuts passed in the county's balanced 2018 budget.

Dickson said conversations with Sheriff Gary Caruana hadn't swayed the top county law enforcement officer's decision to consolidate.

"We're in the dark throughout the process, Dickson said. "There are a lot of unanswered questions."

No specific timeline was mentioned in the letter sent to municipalities, with Bergsten's letter noting the transition would occur in "early 2018," according to the document.

The consolidation effort will require multiple intergovernmental agreements, alongside modifications with the Illinois Commerce Commission related to the county's 911 plan, Sanders said.

As part of the plan, Boone County 911 dispatch would become Rockford's back up.

The early notice given by Rockford comes a bit late for South Beloit, with the municipality approving its overall budget Monday without accounting for the impending dispatch consolidation charge.

"We will make it a priority to pay whatever the agreed upon fee would be," Hoey said.

Rockton's fiscal year ends June 1, with no plan being announced to cover the anticipated cost. Dickson speculated the new charge could result in the department laying off staff.

Roscoe approved its 2018 budget Tuesday, setting aside $100,000 towards the initial cost, Sanders said.

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