Future looks bleak if 911 millage fails

July 28, 2014
Oceana County Sheriff Bob Farber, Mason-Oceana 911 Director Ray Hasil and Mason County Sheriff Kim Cole, left to right, inside the 911 dispatch center in Weare Township.

Oceana County Sheriff Bob Farber, Mason-Oceana 911 Director Ray Hasil and Mason County Sheriff Kim Cole, left to right, inside the 911 dispatch center in Weare Township.

By Allison Scarbrough. OCP Editor.

WEARE TWP. — Slower response times and the dispatch center’s eventual closing are on the horizon if next Tuesday’s 911 millage request fails.

The emergency dispatch center is requesting a .14 millage, Aug. 5, for six years due to persistent declines in local telephone line surcharge revenues, which account for 75 percent of the agency’s funding. “We lost almost $47,000 last year,” said Mason-Oceana 911 Director Ray Hasil. “We will experience the same, if not worse, every year.”

Mason-Oceana 911 officials recently had public meetings in both counties to spread the word about the millage election.

The decline in local surcharge revenues is caused by the increased use of cell phones. There are two main factors at work — monthly plans vs. prepaid plans and occupied vs. vacant homes, according to a 911 information sheet.

(1)  “Monthly plans vs. prepaid plans — when the billing address is in Mason or Oceana counties, 911 collects $2.09 in local surcharge revenues every month from devices capable of dialing 911 that are on a month-to-month plan. Cellular phone coverage has greatly improved in the two-county area and many people are switching to ‘prepaid’ plans that are much less expensive. The prepaid revenue model is radically different and only a fraction of the monthly $2.09 local surcharge revenue is passed back through the prepaid model.

(2) “Occupied vs. vacant homes — both counties have much higher percentages of vacant homes compared to the state average. Only 65 percent of houses in Oceana County are occupied and 70.9 percent in Mason County compared to the state average of 84.3 percent. This is important because people owning the vacant homes are no longer paying for a land line phone, and their cell phone billing address is outside our area, meaning Mason-Oceana 911 receives $0 in local surcharges. These vacant homes contribute to the surge of of summertime incidents and in many cases, they pay $0 for Mason-Oceana 911 services.”

The Mason-Oceana 911 Dispatch Center in Weare Township.

The Mason-Oceana 911 Dispatch Center in Weare Township.

A new millage was selected instead of increasing the local surcharge rate because:

(1)  “The 911 board feels strongly about a solution that includes seasonal and prepaid residents contributing to 911 revenue” and;

(2)  “If approved, the .014 millage proposal will cost $7 per $50,000 in taxable value ($100,000 true cash value) annually. Compared to the new millage proposal, a local surcharge increase of 90 cents would have cost an additional $10.80 per device annually.”

The current Mason-Oceana 911 Dispatch Center, located on Oceana Drive in Weare Township, opened in August of 2003, Hasil said. The Mason-Oceana 911 launched Sept. 11, 1995 at 9:11 p.m. Before Mason-Oceana 911, each sheriff’s department for Oceana and Mason counties had a dispatch center manned by one dispatcher for each shift, Oceana County Sheriff Bob Farber and Mason County Sheriff Kim Cole recalled. Both dispatch centers operated 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

The 911 dispatch center now covers 2,500 square miles and a 55,000 population with its two-county area, Hasil said. It includes 18 law enforcement agencies, two emergency medical services agencies and 19 fire departments. “There are over 600 radios in the two-county area, he said, including ones that are in vehicles. “We interact with many different agencies,” Hasil said.

The 911 staff totals 19 employees, including 14 full-time and five part-time. There are three dispatchers on duty from 8-2 a.m. and two working from 2-8 a.m. “Only a fraction of what’s going on, you hear on the radio,” Hasil said of the highly intense job of a dispatcher. “They’re talking to Friend of the Court, conducting lien confirmations — there is a lot going on that keeps dispatchers busy,” he said.

The dispatch center handles an average of 200 incidents per day with that amount increasing to 300-400 during the summer. One incident, such as a major car accident, can result in 30 calls for dispatchers to handle. With the increase in cell phone use, more 911 calls are going out.

The 911 staff already took a 5 percent pay reduction, Hasil said. So if the 911 millage does not pass, the only alternative to deal with decreasing revenue is to reduce staff. It’s very likely that the amount of dispatchers during that peak time of 8-2 a.m. will be reduced from three to two. There could also be times when only one dispatcher is on duty. “That not only puts ourselves at risk, but also the general public,” Hasil said.

If staff is decreased, calls would be “bounced” to Muskegon County. “Receiving bounced calls is just something that centers do for each other,” Hasil said. But bounced calls would inevitably become more frequent with less dispatchers available. “We would have a higher rate bouncing to Muskegon,” he said. “(Muskegon dispatchers) would have to pick up a phone and call us, which translates to a delay. There would be a spike in missed radio traffic.”

A $680,000 grant was recently awarded to Mason-Oceana 911 that consolidates some services with Newaygo County, Hasil.

Farber chairs the 11-member 911 board, and Cole serves as vice chair. They are both fully aware of how much the 911 budget was “scoured” to cut expenditures. “Sooner or later we will have to close the doors (if the millage fails),” Cole said. “We’ve cut all the fat and all the other stuff.”

“We are trying to sustain a business,” Farber said. “The millage is the best way to get ourselves afloat.” He said he was not initially in favor of asking for a millage until it became clear that it was the only option. “It’s only $7 a year for a $100,000 house. That’s really cheap,” Farber said.

Hasil said his staff has a low turnover rate, and five of the original dispatchers that began in 1995 when Mason-Oceana 911 first formed are still on the job. But he fears if staff reductions are made, there will be a high turnover.  “It could turn into a meat grinder,” he said. A total of 560 initial training hours are required for a dispatcher with ongoing training throughout their careers. It costs $10,000 to train a dispatcher, he added.

If the millage passes in one county but not the other, it fails totally, Farber said. So he encourages residents of both counties to vote.

“We all sat down as a board and decided this is the best way to fix our financial situation,” Farber said. The six-year millage will get the board through on payment of the building. “We must pass this. It’s very important,” added Cole.

“The process of saving a life starts when the phone rings,” Hasil said. “Seconds mean the difference in a life and death situation.”

Polls in Tuesday’s primary election will be open from 7 a.m. to 8 p.m.

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