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Lee County Emergency Dispatch Future in Question

Mar 22, 2016

The future of Lee County’s centralized emergency dispatch center (LeeComm) is in question. The agreement that created it seven years ago will expire soon and a major partner said changes are needed before it can get on board.

Keokuk, Fort Madison and Lee County operated their own dispatch centers until Sept. 2010. That’s when LeeComm officially started handling all 911 calls and all non-emergency calls to local law enforcement and emergency responders.

Lee County Chief Deputy Scott Bonar said the idea for a single location has been talked about for years by law enforcement in the county and its two largest cities.

“I think it was the mid 1990’s,” said Bonar. “They tried it once then, but there was no place we could put it. So when the Rashid Library [in Fort Madison] was empty, they thought about putting it there. But they could never get going on it.”

Bonar said what got the ball rolling nearly a decade ago was the decision to expand and renovate the Lee County Jail. Voters overwhelmingly approved the project, which included space to house a centralized dispatch center.

Bonar said law enforcement was confident a centralized facility could save taxpayer dollars and improve efficiency, so identifying the location was all that was needed to proceed.

LeeComm is a partnership between Lee County, the eight incorporated cities within its borders, and the Lee County Emergency Management Commission. The 28E agreement creating it was signed in mid-2009 and expires June 30, 2016.

Inside LeeComm.
Credit Jason Parrott / TSPR

LeeComm employs its own dispatchers and is overseen by a board consisting of representatives of the cities, the county, law enforcement and first responders. It has its own executive director and there are generally 2-3 dispatchers on duty.

Local leaders had hoped the renewal process would be simple, but that has not been the case.

The first issue to surface was money.

Property taxes collected county-wide are used to pay for benefits for LeeComm employees. The money used to pay salaries and for day-to-day operations is split by the partners based on population.

Keokuk, Fort Madison and Lee County share about 92% of the costs of the salaries and operations, with the smaller cities and the emergency management commission splitting the remaining 8%.

It might sound like a good deal for the smaller cities, until you take into account that they never paid for emergency dispatch services in the past.

West Point Mayor Paul Walker said the new cost was even more difficult to swallow when you look at call volume. He said his city of fewer than 1,000 generates about one-call for service each day.

“We’re paying $16,000 for that one call per day and that gets pretty price if you look at it on that end,” said Walker. Where you take your larger communities and the county, naturally, they got calls coming in, you know, constantly.”

Walker’s concerns were shared by the mayors and leaders of the other smaller communities, so those writing the renewal agreement for LeeComm came up with a new funding formula: a countywide levy.

Instead of the cities collecting the taxes and passing them along to LeeComm, the new agreement calls for the county to collect them from every property owner. That means the cities will not need a line item in the budgets for emergency dispatch, which seems favorable as their city councils have been signing off on the agreements over the two months.

But that change could be for naught if one of the three larger partners in LeeComm is not on board.

The Keokuk City Council has not even discussed the new agreement during a public meeting. City Administrator Aaron Burnett said there’s a reason for that: the city has some serious concerns about some of the language in the new agreement.

Burnett has been with the city for fewer than six months and has been on the LeeComm oversight board for even less time, so he was not part of the construction of the renewal agreement.

He said that’s why he is pushing for changes, to make sure the agreement is in line with Keokuk’s expectations for the system.

For starters, the city would like to see more regular reports from LeeComm to its members as to how it is handling calls on a daily basis.

“There’s been some issues with making sure the reporting gets back to the entities, that the dispatch is meeting the different metrics that the city would like and making sure that that service is as solid as possible for the residents of Keokuk. With that, there is some language as far as duration, you know, setting an annual review or providing performance metrics that are very specified on what the goals are and what the different standards are that are to be met by [LeeComm],” said Burnett.

The new agreement also creates a “User Oversight Board.” This would be a 6-member board, separate from the 9-member LeeComm “Control Board,” that would oversee the Executive Director of Lee Comm and advise the Control Board on operating procedures.

Burnett said this could be a good step forward, as long as it is structured properly.

“There’s a lot of structure questions about how do we make this the best board possible to guide that sort of performance and make sure [LeeComm] is functioning as well as it can,” said Burnett.

“As part of that, we are looking at who do we put on. Right now, it is proposed as a 6-member board, we believe it should be a 5-member board. I think when you have an even number, there is an issue there. And then, just based on representation, who should be on it. We have proposed something and the other entities have proposed something else and we are just trying to find compromise there.”

He said the new agreement also needs to more clearly explain how complaints from members will be handled.

“What we have struggled with is if a problem comes up, with the board structure, it is mentioned and then it carries on for a long period of time without being resolved.”

Burnett said he’s hopeful a compromise can be reached, but he said Keokuk cannot rejoin the dispatch center if its concerns are not addressed.

Whether that can occur before the end of June remains to be seen.

Lee County Attorney Mike Short is serving as a mediator in this process. That includes the possible drafting of an alternate agreement that would be more in line with Keokuk’s requests.

Short declined to comment on the alternate agreement due to his role as mediator, but he said he’s confident all parties will be on board before the June 30 deadline. Because if they are not, it’s unclear what will happen to LeeComm and emergency dispatching services in Lee County without everyone on board.