BELLE FOURCHE — Belle Fourche and Butte County officials assembled around a joint table Wednesday for a meeting of the minds about the potential merger of the dispatch centers of Butte and Meade counties and how decisions moving forward will unilaterally affect area residents.
Belle Fourche Mayor Gloria Landphere opened the informational meeting by explaining that discussions about the potential merger have moved along primarily at the county level and because Belle Fourche contracts its dispatch operations with Butte County, she wanted the city to be more involved with the process.
“Where this affects the population of Belle Fourche … (comprised of approximately) 6,000 people, we need to be on point (and) know how things are going to roll out,” she said.
Butte County Sheriff Fred Lamphere, who’s been taking the lead related to the discussions between the Butte County Commission and Meade County, explained that the situation snowballed from the beginning, putting a bad taste in people’s mouths. He said that discussions about the potential merger, which began last summer, had accelerated quickly due to an upcoming phone provider switch mandated by the state for all dispatch centers, which is scheduled to take place in Butte County in February. Officials in both counties thought it could be financially advantageous to merge prior to that extra cost being forced onto both counties individually.
During public discussions at county commission meetings held Sept. 3, 2019, and Nov. 5, 2019, members of the public spoke out in opposition about the merger, feeling it was being unnecessarily rushed. Lamphere said it was decided at that time to slow down, consider all the potential options, and move forward accordingly.
Lamphere said he thinks a merger could be a good deal for Butte County and Belle Fourche. In addition to having a solid working relationship with Meade County, who jails Butte County inmates, Lamphere said that the county only gets back 70% of the 911 tax funds that are collected from Butte County residents.
“The rest of that money goes to the state and the big dispatch centers … wind up using that money,” he said.
Currently both Butte and Meade county dispatch centers serve areas with populations less than 30,000. But, if the two were to combine offices, it would push them over the 30,000 benchmark which would net them additional state 911 funding.
South Dakota collects 911 surcharge fees on wire line, wireless, VoIP, and pre-paid telephone services to fund South Dakota’s 911 emergency response system, along with updates and upgrades to ensure the public always has access to immediate, reliable emergency contacts, said Maria King, Next Generation 911 project manager and interim state 911 coordinator.
Currently there is a $1.25 monthly surcharge on all telephones and a 2% fee on all prepaid wireless service.
That money is submitted by telephone carriers to the state Department of Revenue and then distributed to counties based on how many phones are in the county. The county typically then earmarks that money for the dispatch center.
Lamphere said that the basic costs of operating a dispatch center is similar among the Northern Hills counties, running between $625,000-$650,000 a year for each county.
Approximately five years ago, Lamphere said the county performed $500,000 worth of state-mandated dispatch upgrades and he foresees that within the next three years, another upgrade is going to be required.
The equipment, accessibility, and levels of service provided to the community by the dispatch center is delegated by the state and required of every center, he said.
“So the increase to run a regional dispatch center versus running our center is that you have to increase personnel numbers,” Lamphere said.
Within the next two years, he said the center is going to be required by the state to man the center with two staff people 24 hours a day, increasing the annual costs significantly. Currently, Lamphere said two people are working dispatch for 18 hours each day. For the other six hours, only one staff person is dispatching.
“We’re going to increase our cost to run our dispatch center within two or three years by $150,000-$200,000 (annually),” he said.
In 2019, Lamphere said the Butte County dispatch center took 32,317 calls. Out of those calls, 2,904 were 911 calls. The remainder of the calls were administrative and non-emergent.
“When you break (it) down on a 24-hour period, out of the 32,317 calls … that breaks down to 3.6 calls per hour,” Lamphere said, adding that there is an average of one 911 call every three hours.
When the call volume is broken down by salary and benefit expenses, the county is paying $41.32 per hour, he said.
Lamphere said that according to information collected about two years ago, 65% of the calls taken by the county dispatch center were from Belle Fourche with 35% from the county.
City Councilman Randy Schmidt voiced concerns about how the city would be represented throughout the merger discussions.
“My concern would be we get tied up with these guys and then we don’t have no say in anything … (and then) we’re on the hook,” he said. “(And down the line) we’re looking for somewhere else to (run dispatch for the city).”
Lamphere said that all the entities involved could partner to iron out the details of a plan that would best benefit all involved.
“I think the idea was that we (the county) could still work as the liaison for the city,” he said, adding that the amount paid toward the operation costs could be divvied up based on call volume taken from each location. “We would have to start a user board … that has representatives from all the entities that are using it.”
Landphere is not convinced that a merger is in the city’s best interest.
“We need to really think through this on the city level because if the county decides to do this, we have to figure out what we’re (the city is) going to do and how that’s going to work for us because once that transition is done, it’s done,” she said. “It’s life altering for both the city and the county. I have talked to a lot of people here; doing something like this could really be an uphill battle in Belle (Fourche),” Landphere said.
While Landphere was understanding of the concerns, he said he’s concerned that neither the county nor the city will have many options in the near future.
“Here’s where I’m at, right now we have options where we can look at things but I feel like we’re going to come up to this brick wall and it’s going to be basically (that) we’ve got to pay more,” he said. “And what are we going take away from to maintain this service?”
The multi-agency dispatch method has worked well for agencies around the state, Lamphere said.
“I’m not hearing anything negative from them,” he said. “So I don’t think it’s a big issue.”
LeEllen McCartney, Butte County deputy state’s attorney, explained to the group that she’s collected some examples of cooperative dispatch agreements in the hope of modeling a new agreement to utilize in the case a merger comes to fruition.
“There’s a number of different options that you have in just structuring the thing so that it meets everybody’s needs as best as it possibly can … so that the needs and the services are met,” she said.
Vicki Greenwood, Butte County dispatch coordinator, said that every year, the state Legislature enacts new rules and requirements related to dispatch, in her opinion, moving in a direction to force dispatch centers towards merging and even pushing toward a single or a handful of state-wide dispatch centers.
“At this point, if we come together and look at this with everyone coming in with an open mind and trying to put together what you want out of this service, I think that’s the best thing to do right now,” she said. “Because I kind of feel like the state’s going to keep narrowing things down until they get what they want. The worst-case scenario, it could be that Pennington County is going to take all the 911 money and their dispatch center is going to take all of our 911 calls.”
Oz Hespe, Belle Fourche resident and former chief of the Belle Fourche Volunteer Fire Department, said that people should be contacting local legislators and demanding that changes be made related to 911 funding.
“Why aren’t we getting our legislators involved in this to say ‘why are we giving up 30% of those moneys?” he said. “One hundred percent of that money comes from Belle Fourche and Butte County, why should Rapid City and Sioux Falls get 30% of that money?”
Hespe is also concerned about giving up local jobs in the course of a merger.
“There’s eight dispatchers (in Butte County), and the Meade County sheriff (Ron Merwin) … he was telling how he was going to (staff) 12 dispatchers, four of which would be from Butte County and eight would be from Meade County,” he said. “If this is such a good deal, why aren’t we taking six of our dispatchers and six of his dispatchers? Trust me, Meade County is looking out for Meade County here. Your worst enemy in this whole project has been the statements that have come out of Meade County.”
Hespe said he’s concerned what could happen if a merger gets worked and then in a few years, the counties have a falling out.
“You’re going to spend a fortune if this thing goes south to turn this back around,” he said. “We need to fight for Belle Fourche.”
Butte County Commissioner Kim Richards said that with the decimated county budget, the commissioners are driven to save money.
“Because we are close to financial ruin right now the way law enforcement and court systems and jails have depleted basically any extra (funds) we had,” Richards said. “I mean we are tight.”
Belle Fourche Councilman Travis Martin said losing services from Belle Fourche would be a major detriment to the community.
“The more times we lose something in Belle Fourche, it makes it that much harder to get something else,” he said. “Belle Fourche is … on the cusp of actual growth. We keep cutting our nose off to spite our face in the short term trying to save money which eventually actually costs us money because we keep people from moving here and bringing their businesses here. You want to increase your budget going forward, that’s the way to do it … get people in business here to pay those taxes that fund these things. Not kicking things out which is detrimental to enticing someone else to come in.”
Representatives from Butte County and Belle Fourche agreed to get together and continue having conversations about how to go forward related to a potential merger.
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