Franklin County Government Center

Franklin County commissioners met Tuesday with city leaders from Washington, Pacific and Sullivan to convince them to join the county’s new emergency dispatch center.

Union and St. Clair are using the new dispatch center to coordinate police, fire and ambulance calls, but Washington, Pacific and Sullivan have their own public safety answering points (PSAP). The center is housed at the Franklin County Adult Detention Center in Union and was part of a recent $30 million expansion and renovation project.

The 4,845-square-foot dispatching center opened in May 2020 with seven new dispatching consoles, which cost a total of $137,456, according to Missourian archives. Including consoles moved from the old dispatch center, it has 13 dispatching stations compared with the six at the previous facility.

The cost of the dispatch portion of the jail project was not available Friday.

The city of Union pays the county $10,000 a year for police dispatch services, while the Union Fire Protection District pays $16,000, according to the county. St. Clair pays $10,000 annually for police dispatch, the St. Clair Fire District pays $15,000 and the St. Clair Ambulance District pays $13,000.

Franklin County Presiding Commissioner Tim Brinker told city leaders that the county dispatch facility is among the best in the state and urged them to join the system, adding that working with the county on emergency service dispatching would save the cities money by reducing the number of dispatchers they would need. 

The county has an annual funding gap of about $500,000 for operating its 911 system. The funding gap is caused by less revenue coming in from its 911 landline tax, with more individuals using cell phones and businesses using internet phones.

The county has discussed going to a public vote on an online use tax or using federal stimulus money to help pay for 911 dispatch services.

“We now have in place a facility that we’re very confident can handle the volume (of calls) we generate countywide and points beyond,” Brinker told attendees.

Residents are being taxed by the county and the cities that maintain their own dispatch systems, Brinker said. 

“Redundancy in public safety is, obviously, a necessity in some cases,” he said. “But as we’ve seen and paid witness to from other dispatch agencies throughout the nation, these redundancies can be minimized and in some cases eliminated with a state-of-the-art structure and the capability and capacity that we have here now in Franklin (County).”

Franklin County has 22 dispatcher positions, though only 19 are filled. Washington, which New Haven contracts with, has nine dispatchers. Sullivan and Pacific each have five.

Washington Mayor Sandy Lucy asked for specifics and questioned whether any of the information was written down anywhere. Brinker said he did not have specific cost savings but reiterated that if Franklin County handled dispatching for those cities, it could do it for “a lot less” than it now costs all the agencies to do.

Friday morning, Lucy said she still hadn’t received any additional information from the county, including on potential savings by using the county dispatch center.

“When you’re hearing that they’ve looked at all this and there’s a real problem, I’d like to look at the same information they’re looking at,” she said. “And I think all of us would.”

Other city officials said their dispatchers perform other duties in addition to handling emergency calls. In Sullivan, for instance, the dispatchers oversee the jail at night, according to Sullivan City Administrator J.T. Hardy. “I would say we generate more money to the county than the county gives us back in services,” he said at Tuesday’s meeting. 

Pacific Police Chief Scott Melies agreed, saying not all costs would be eliminated by contracting with the county and adding that the county should come to the cities with a comprehensive plan. 

Washington City Administrator Darren Lamb said the city’s fire and police departments feel strongly about the level of service they get from Washington’s PSAP and have reservations about the county’s service. 

“That’s a big hurdle that Washington would have with that,” he said.

Union Fire Chief Russ Hamilton has seen the county’s numbers and said contracting with the county saves the city of Union money, though he did not give specifics. “On an operational standpoint, we’ve discussed all that and answered all the questions,” he said.

Pacific City Administrator Steve Roth said the city will need an agreement in writing before city officials can make a decision.

“We really have not had an actual written proposal from the county,” he said. “I think if we had that on the table, it would be helpful.”

Also to be decided is how a countywide dispatch facility would be overseen, including possible community board oversight.

Union and St. Clair have been served by Franklin County dispatch for more than 30 years, said Abe Cook, the county’s emergency management director.

Brinker said county officials plan to get together again with the cities in a couple of weeks to provide more information.

“We’re going to get in the weeds, but this is really a flyover of the consolidation to get the issue on your radar,” he said.

After the meeting, Brinker was asked if the county has considered requiring the cities to join its dispatch program or if that could be done legally. 

“I haven’t even thought one iota about that,” he said. “Franklin County is different. We look out for each other.”