Calls of distress usually come into the city and county’s emergency dispatch center. Now, a $7 million call is being made from the center to local government officials.
Douglas County Administrator Craig Weinaug said Friday he’s recommending the city of Lawrence and Douglas County come up with $7 million in the near future to help the center that handles 911 calls and other emergency communications meet new federal technology standards.
“Most of the equipment in there is 15 or 16 years old and just needs to be replaced,” Weinaug said.
Some of the equipment must be replaced, Weinaug said. New federal regulations will shift emergency communications to a new frequency, in part, to make it easier for law enforcement agencies and first responders across the country to communicate. Weinaug said the new frequency will mean completely new equipment in some cases. But part of the $7 million project also is to pay for general upgrades to the center that make sense to do as part of the project.
“It would be wasting money in the long run to not do everything else we need to do,” Weinaug said. “If we don’t do it now, we’ll be coming back later to do it.”
But money in the short-run may be an issue. Weinaug is proposing that the city pay $4.62 million of the estimated $7 million cost. The county would pay the rest. The split is based on an agreement the city and county has for paying operating expenses of the center. Under the agreement, the city pays 66 percent of the operating expenses of the center, and the county pays 34 percent. But the agreement does not technically cover capital improvements, such as the equipment upgrades.
Weinaug said he wants to reach an agreement with the city in the coming weeks in order to be able issue debt while interest rates are extremely low. Weinaug said he believes the county can refinance some existing debt and add on its share of the dispatch center upgrade without raising the property tax mill levy.
But City Manager David Corliss said he’s not ready for the city to commit to anything yet. He said his staff will study the issue, but he’s not yet ready to say that city should pick up $4.62 million worth of the cost.
“As I’ve told Craig, I have none of this budgeted,” Corliss said. “We’ll just have to take a look at this and see what the city’s funding sources are and what the county’s funding sources are.”
A $4.62 million expenditure likely would put a strain on other areas of city government. The city has a general rule of thumb that it can issue $5 million worth of debt in any one year without raising its property tax rate, Corliss said.
Weinaug said he thinks the proposed funding split between the city and the county is equitable. He said about 80 percent of the emergency calls handled at the center come from inside the city of Lawrence.
He also said it is clear that operating a joint city-county center is less expensive than each entity operating its own facility.
Weinaug said he believes planning for the upgrade needs to begin now because the project could take two years to design and construct.