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New dispatch center site chosen

Worthington agreed upon for regional facility

WORTHINGTON -- Representatives from Rock, Nobles and Murray Counties gathered Wednesday morning to hammer out some decisions regarding a regional dispatch center, agreeing on a site and a method of governance for a regional Public Safety Answering Point (PSAP).

Two sites discussed were the old elementary school in Lake Wilson and the dispatch center currently in use at the Prairie Justice Center in Worthington. At the end of the discussion, the Worthington site won out over the Lake Wilson building.

Nobles County Sheriff Kent Wilkening said the bottom line was which site would best serve the people.

"My concern with the Lake Wilson site is what it would cost to turn it into a safe and secure place for the dispatchers," he stated.

"I don't have a problem with renovating something, but I can't imagine what the cost would be to put a dispatch center in a building not made to be a dispatch center."

Wilkening said they have never had a problem getting dispatchers to the job during adverse weather, the jail kitchen guarantees a supply of food in the event of long shifts caused by any kind of disaster, and a back-up generator makes the building self-sufficient.

"I like the Worthington option," Rock County Sheriff Evan Verbrugge stated. "I know its capabilities, it is a bigger town, it is just up the freeway, and it is user-friendly."

When Murray County Commissioner Kevin Vickerman voiced concerns about the ability to pull in additional counties from the north, Rock County Administrator Kyle Oldre said the key was to get the project up and running initially, and to theoretically outgrow the facility in several years as other counties joined in.

"At some point, we can renovate or build new if others come on board," Oldre explained.

Earlier in the meeting, Oldre, who has been the point person in coordinating the efforts of the interested counties, mentioned that site selection would be critical.

"The end of December 2011 is 18 months away," he stated. "We have to move at a terrific speed."

With the Federal Communication Commission (FCC) mandating narrow-banding of all the currently utilized VHF frequencies used by law enforcement, fire departments, emergency medical services and public works throughout the country by Jan. 1, 2013, counties want their systems up and running as early as possible. Shooting for a regional start-up date of Jan. 1, 2012, gives them a one-year safety net.

With the estimated cost of updating their dispatch center hovering around $850,000, Cottonwood County is now reconsidering an earlier decision not to join the regional group. Because they maintain a jail, the Cottonwood County Sheriff's Office would still need staff on hand 24 hours a day, seven days a week, which was an important factor in opting out of the group. But the $850,000 estimate is a factor pushing the county in the opposite direction.

Cottonwood County Commissioner Norm Holmen, who attended the meeting along with Sheriff Jason Purrington, said his county is under a timeline also.

"By the end of 2011, we need to know whether we're buying equipment or not," he said.

Before a decision regarding a site could be made, the sheriffs, commissioners and city and county administrators in the room had a discussion about which method of governance to use -- a joint powers agreement or contract for services. Most seemed more amenable to a joint powers agreement, which was the method chosen.

Verbrugge pointed out what he referred to as "the elephant in the room."

"Worthington does things differently," he said after stating he wanted a joint powers agreement. "I want to have a say in how things go and be able to voice my concerns."

"All the sheriffs I have talked to are more inclined to be a part of something they have a say in," Wilkening stated.

Earlier, the group had listened and asked questions of Kandiyohi County Sheriff Dan Hartog and Big Stone County Sheriff John Haukos, who have been involved in a regional dispatch for over a year. The PSAP is in Kandiyohi County, with Big Stone County contracting for dispatch services. The group spent more than an hour listening to and asking questions of the two sheriffs.

The key to making the regional PSAP work, both men said, was "give and take" and the absence of political maneuvering. They are now sharing records management as well, which has been successful.

Haukos said his office still dispatches administrative calls, but all 911 calls go through Kandiyohi County. He didn't fire any staff, just let some of them retire on schedule and didn't fill their positions.

What would happen to the individual counties' staffs has been seriously discussed, as no county wants to leave their people without jobs.

"It is not like all other staff will be kicked to the curb," Wilkening stated. "We hire them to work in Worthington."

"All staff is not going to survive," Vickerman replied. "You don't need them all."

Worthington Public Safety Director Mike Cumiskey said decisions on staffing have not been made, and there is still much to be discussed. Dispatchers, fire chiefs, ambulance crew members and others will be used to form a subcommittee regarding centralizing policies. How many members would be on a joint powers board has yet to be decided.

The group approved a suggestion to hire a contract attorney to draft a joint powers agreement and to have a consultant look at what exactly needs to be done at the Prairie Justice Center to get ready for regionalized dispatch. Another meeting, hopefully with consultants present, has been tentatively scheduled for July 26.