Members of the Montgomery County Board have a decision to make regarding the location of 911 dispatch services, so to help them make it they heard from the state 911 administrator, the Christian-Shelby 911 administrator, county 911 board members, and from first responders during a special meeting called by county board Chairman Evan Young on Monday, Jan. 6, at the Historic Courthouse in Hillsboro.
The meeting came after the county board learned at their regular monthly meeting on Tuesday, Dec. 10, that in order for the 911 consolidation with Christian and Shelby counties approved by the local 911 board on Oct. 17 to occur, the county board has to first dissolve the local 911 board and then approve an intergovernmental agreement. Board members asked for more information before making those decisions, so Chairman Young scheduled the special meeting with the state 911 Administrator Cindy Barbera-Brelle and the Christian-Shelby Administrator Mickie Ehrhardt. The earliest a county board decision could possibly be made is during their next regular meeting on Tuesday, Jan. 14, at the Historic Courthouse in Hillsboro.
Christian-Montgomery EMA Director Greg Nimmo, who had served as Montgomery County 911 Administrator until Dec. 1, started the meeting with a history of 911 services here, beginning with a referendum vote in 1992 that funded services with a $2 per month surcharge on telephones. The system went on-line in 1996, and consolidated with dispatchers in the Montgomery County Sheriff's Office in 2010 when funding became diminished due to fewer and fewer land line telephones.
"In 2012, maintenance was stopped on the 911 system," Nimmo said, punctuating funding problems.
In 2019, the 911 board signed a $900,000 contract to purchase a new 911 system that would make it compliant with "next-gen" 911 requirements, mandated by the state to be in place by July 1 this year.
Nimmo said that in the wake of the Coffeen Power Plant closure, though, the county board Finance Committee reduced their commitment to help fund the next-gen 911 contract from $300,000 to $60,000. Hence, the county 911 board reconsidered the option to consolidate 911 dispatcher with Christian and Shelby counties in Taylorville.
"They are currently our back-up," Nimmo said. "Consolidation just means that instead of the phone being answered in this county, it will be answered in that county."
According to state 911 Administrator Barbera-Brelle, next-gen 911 modernizes the service to an IP-based network, allowing 911 services to not only accept phone calls, but also text messages, video files, and data from other transmitting devices such as building alarms and wearable medical devices.
Montgomery County Board Finance Committee Chair Megan Beeler, as well as to 911 board members who spoke, described the plan to consolidate dispatch with Christian and Shelby counties as entirely financially driven.
"We are in this position because the power plant closed," Beeler said.
Darin Beckman, a member of the 911 board, said Montgomery County 911 currently has among the best dispatchers in the state, and he would have preferred dispatch remain local, but voted to consolidate "because money doesn't lie."
"We don't want to see it go broke again," 911 board member Joe Gasparich said of the financial problems that drove consolidation with sheriff's office dispatch in 2010.
Those who spoke from a crowd of about 50 people–mostly first responders but also municipal officials and members of the public–by and large urged the county board to find a way to keep 911 dispatch services local.
Retired Hillsboro Fire Chief Richard Hewitt said he was among those who first approached the county board to establish 911 services.
"I'm greatly disturbed that you're considering merging," Hewitt said. "If you're concerned with the health and welfare of your citizens, you'll keep it here."
Hillsboro City Councilman Don Downs described communication problems that arose when the Illinois State Police moved District 18 dispatch from Litchfield to Collinsville, a concern later reinforced by Trooper Jim Holliday.
"There is a difference in where the dispatch comes from," Holliday said.
Dan Hough questioned the status of the signed $900,000 five-year contract with Motorola to make Montgomery County next-gen 911 compliant if the county moves forward with consolidation. Nimmo said Christian-Shelby–who is currently next-gen ready–could choose to take over the contract, otherwise, the county would have to negotiate a buy-out, estimated in the $200,000 range.
"You need to understand that public safety is not a place to cut costs," fireman Dan Rogers said. "We signed a contract with Motorola that maybe we shouldn't have. As a former Montgomery County dispatcher, I can tell you we have some of the best dispatchers in the state working in that jail."
"If money were no object, they would stay here," Hillsboro Mayor Brian Sullivan said of local dispatch services, "so let's keep it here."
"I believe the county will spend more if 911 leaves," Montgomery County Sheriff Rick Robbins said of the financial factors driving the consolidation. "We need new equipment in the sheriff's office whether they go or stay. The equipment and software that we have is not adequate. I am 100 percent for keeping this in Montgomery County . . . if we can afford it."
The sheriff also said that if 911 dispatch leaves the jail, he will have to lay off four or five of his current telecommunicator staff of 11, depending upon how many the county budget allows him to keep.
Christian-Shelby 911 Administrator Ehrhardt, though, said she would be adding four dispatchers if consolidation is approved, and would hire four from Montgomery County; the salary, though, would be about $4,800 per year less.
Near the beginning of the meeting, Ehrhardt said she has been 911 administrator since 1998. Shelby County merged with Christian in 2016 to meet state mandates requiring enhanced 911, and her call center annually handles about 32,000 calls. Adding Montgomery County would add another 20,000 calls, she said later in answer to a question by Litchfield Mayor Steve Dougherty.
"We have a system in place where we can easily bring on another adjoining county," Ehrhardt said.
Representatives from Shelby County said that although there were some "bumps" in the early days of their consolidation, they would welcome Montgomery County.
Barbera-Brelle pointed out in her remarks that although the state statute still requires 911 call centers to be next-gen ready by July 1, the state will not have its network backbone in place by then; vendor proposals for that work are not due until February.
"Right now, we don't know what the network cost of the next-gen 911 will be," Barbera-Brelle said.
She also gave a history of 911 funding from the state perspective. After the state realized that local 911 systems funded by land line surcharges all over the state were beginning to suffer–like in Montgomery County, 2015 legislation equalized surcharges at 87 cents for phone–land, cell and IP–and switched administration from the Illinois Commerce Commission to the Illinois State Police. That per-phone surcharge increased to $1.50 per line in 2017, and since then, Montgomery County 911 has been getting about $43,000 per month based on a complicated state formula.
The state administrator also noted that the 2015 legislation required every county without 911 services to provide them–there were 13 at the time and that number is down to one–and for counties without enhanced 911 (Montgomery County has had that from the beginning) to provide it. Shelby did not, which is what prompted their consolidation with Christian. The legislation also required 911 call centers serving less than 25,000 people to consolidate, and encouraged those serving more people to consolidate by offering grants to offset one-time expenses.
She also pointed out in answer to a question from county board member Jeremy Jones that a decision to consolidate would be permanent.
"The way the legislation is written today, you cannot create a new Emergency Telephone System Board," Barbera-Brelle said.