Still Not Convinced On Consolidations

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Consolidation.

It's a word that has been the center of a lot of discussion lately.

Where school consolidation is concerned, we have already expressed in this space how we believe pooling of resources between the Litchfield and the Hillsboro school districts would result in enhanced educational opportunities for our students.  We recognized, though, that no tough decisions are simple, cut and dry; there are good points and bad points to most serious public discussions.  When it comes to school consolidation, we simply feel that the good points far outweigh the bad.

When it comes to 911 consolidation and Emergency Management Agency (EMA), however, we're not so convinced.

Both are somewhat separate issues with decisions from separate bodies.  The Emergency Telephone System Board (ETSB) voted on Oct. 17 to consolidate 911 dispatch in Taylorville with a previous consolidation of Christian and Shelby counties, and the Montgomery County Board will vote Tuesday afternoon, Nov. 12, whether or not they want to consolidate EMA services with Christian County.  They are two distinct services with decisions made by two separate governing bodies, but both–as opposed to the school consolidation initiative–appear to be financially driven.

When the ETSB–an independent board whose members are appointed by the county board–voted 4-2 on Oct. 17 to consolidate with Christian and Shelby, it was in reconsideration of the same vote that failed to pass 3-3 the previous month.  In between the two meetings, the county board's Finance Committee backpedaled on a previous commitment of over $300,000 in necessary system upgrades–an understandable decision given the fiscal year 2020 budget that the county board will vote on Tuesday includes an $800,000 transfer from coal royalty reserves into the general fund primarily to cover anticipated revenue lost to the closing of Coffeen Power Station.

"A true 911 service consolidation would pool the joint 911 systems funds as a unified system," according to a press release after the ETSB vote.  "This would create the needed funding to complete and maintain 911 system upgrades."

Likely so.  But unfortunately, for the 911 consolidation to occur, it will require the divorce of a previous consolidation, and divorces are notoriously expensive. Years ago, telecommunicators for the Montgomery County Sheriff's Office and 911 dispatchers–who literally sat two feet from each other but could not cover for one another–were consolidated into one unit, creating a logical cooperation of services in which the county paid its share of the expenses, and 911 paid for its share through revenue from the surcharge on phone bills.

When 911 services are consolidated in Taylorville a year from now, however, instead of paying part of the cost for the current 11 full-time dispatchers shared with 911, the sheriff's office will still need the six dispatchers it had before.  Bearing the full cost of all of six people will amount to more than the cost of half of the current 11.

Adding to that, the sheriff's office is currently under contract to provide law enforcement dispatch services for Nokomis, a service for which it will be paid $23,000 next year, and to provide law enforcement dispatch services for Litchfield, a service for which it will be paid $145,000 next year.  Although those contracts could continue after the 911 dispatch goes to Taylorville, initial indications are at least one of them may not.

In the long run, it may have been cheaper for the county to pay its share of the $300,000 in equipment upgrades and avoid a messy divorce.  And that's just looking at the financial picture; there are also job loss and service considerations.

The financial gain behind consolidating EMA with Christian County is even more difficult to see.  According to the proposed intergovernmental agreement that the Montgomery County Board will consider Tuesday afternoon, "In the current financial climate, the consolidation of EMAs will better serve the interest and life-safety and protection of property and the environment of both counties with a full-time dedicated EMA director."

The proposed two-year contract calls for an annual $12,357 payment from Montgomery County to Christian for those services.  That's a modest amount to be sure, but because state funding reimburses counties for  most of an EMA director's salary, the consolidation is a break-even at best.  In fact, the proposed FY2020 county budget, anticipating EMA consolidation with Christian County, eliminates $53,000 in revenue and $52,000 in expenses–a net loss after consolidation.

The current EMA director is a full-time Montgomery County employee with two distinct responsibilities: half of his salary is paid as the 911 Coordinator and the other half is paid as the EMA Director–two separate and distinct line items in the county budget.  Currently, we have an EMA director who only has those responsibilities part time, but is at work in Montgomery County full time.  If those services are consolidated, we'll still have an EMA director who is a full time employee, but he will only be in the county part time.

With no benefit in service and no benefit to the county budget, it's hard to see the benefit of EMA consolidation.

Once again, on weighty public issues such as consolidation, there are obviously positives and negatives.  When it comes to 911 and EMA consolidations, we're not convinced the positives come out on top.

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