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Councilman resurrects dispatch vote idea

October 02, 2013 - The idea of giving Oxford Village voters a choice at the polls as to which agency – the village police or Oakland County Sheriff's Department – provides their 9-1-1/dispatch services was resurrected last week by Councilman Elgin Nichols.

"I would like them to make the decision as to which route to go," he said. "I don't think that we as two or three people here ought to decide for the complete municipality."

Nichols would like to see the question placed on the November 2014 ballot.

Council voted 4-0 to set the issue aside until the 6:30 Tuesday, Oct. 22 meeting, so village attorney Bob Davis can present them with more information and some potential ballot language.

"I think this is a very interesting idea," said Councilwoman Maureen Helmuth. "I think I have some more questions . . . I would like some time to digest all of this and see what we can do."

"I'd like some more time to think about it," said Councilwoman Sue Bossardet.

Nichols is a staunch proponent of the village contracting with the sheriff's department for 9-1-1/dispatch services in order to save tax money.

Right now, the village dispatch center handles all of the emergency and service calls for the village police department and the Oxford Fire Department, which serves both the township and village.

For this service, the village dispatch center has an operating budget of $273,300 for the 2013-14 fiscal year.

Of that amount, $231,400 is coming from the village taxpayers via their 10.62-mill property tax; $36,500 is from the township fire department as part of the fire/EMS dispatch services contract; and $5,400 consists of funds from the state and county.

If the village were to contract with the county just for police dispatch services, it would have cost $27,580 for 2013 and $28,130 for 2014 based on the current rates.

Money for fire/EMS dispatch services comes from the voter-approved 2.5-mill property taxes that are dedicated to funding the fire department, levied through the township and paid by both township and village property owners. This money is controlled by the township board, not the village council.

Right now, the township is paying the village $36,071 for fire/EMS dispatch services. That amount will increase to $37,153 next year and to $38,268 in 2015.

If the township were to contract with county for fire/EMS dispatch today, it would pay $40,785 per year based on the current rate of $24.96 per call multiplied by 1,634 calls, which is the average of the total number of calls (4,902) between 2010 and 2012. That amount would increase to $41,602 when county's per-call price increases to $25.46 on April 1, 2014.

If county were to take over fire/EMS dispatch, Undersheriff Mike McCabe told this reporter they would work with the Oxford fire chief to examine the call numbers to make sure they're accurate.

"If we can bring their numbers down, we work with them to bring their numbers down," he said. "We've found in the past (with other communities) that some of the numbers were not accurate and were actually higher than what they should have been."

Oxford's number of fire/EMS calls increased from 1,550 in 2011 to 1,825 in 2012.

"That's a huge increase," said McCabe, noting if any of those calls involve simply transporting patients from a nursing home to the hospital or another location "that wouldn't count in (Oxford's) numbers."

"We don't charge for those," he said.

In a financial analysis previously prepared for council, village Manager Joe Young calculated that if the municipality were to contract with the county for police dispatch services, the gross savings would be $203,270 per year.

But that doesn't take into account "fixed overhead costs" of $18,110, which when subtracted, give the village a net savings of $185,160, according to Young.

That net savings is without hiring anyone to man the police station's front desk or perform administrative services currently being provided by village dispatchers. Young estimated it would cost approximately $80,000 annually to hire part-time administrative personnel to cover the police station for 12 hours per day/seven days a week and approximately $160,000 per year for 24-7 coverage.

Oxford Township pays a 40-hour-per-week employee to handle the administrative duties and greet the public at its sheriff's substation. This individual currently earns an annual salary of $33,723, plus $31,018 in benefits. That salary will increase to $35,906 next year.

Whether or not anyone was hired for these duties and how much was allocated for them would be for council to decide.

The idea of placing the dispatch issue on the ballot was discussed at the Aug. 27 council meeting, but council took no action regarding it.

Instead, council voted 3-1 to take on the Village of Lake Orion as a customer for Oxford's dispatch services and purchase $114,318 in equipment and software to upgrade the dispatch center located on W. Burdick St.

Nichols expressed concern about that meeting and those decisions.

"I think certain statements were made by council people here that showed bias rather than neutrality in making this decision," he said. "So, I think some of us are emotionally too close to the issue. I think giving (the decision) to the people, letting them decide, is the right way to go."

Davis is currently drafting language that's designed to basically give the voters a clear choice regarding which agency, the village police or sheriff's department, they would like to provide their 9-1-1/dispatch services.

Right now, Davis is leaning towards placing two questions concerning millage amounts on the ballot.

The village cannot simply ask voters via a ballot question to directly choose between the two agencies. That would be considered an advisory vote and it's not authorized by state law.

According to Davis, the first question could ask voters to approve a dedicated millage that would allow the village to continue funding and operating its local dispatch center as it currently exists.

The $231,400 that village residents are paying to operate the local dispatch center this year is equal to 2.135 mills based on figures provided by Young. It's levied as part of the village's overall 10.62-mill tax rate.

In the information he provided to council, Young suggested requesting a tax levy of up to 2.5 mills for dispatch because that would generate $271,000 in tax revenue, of which the Downtown Development Authority would capture $39,000, leaving $232,000 to fund dispatch services.

Davis said the second ballot question could ask voters to approve a dedicated millage of a lesser amount that would allow the village to contract with the sheriff's department for 9-1-1/dispatch services.

Whichever ballot question received the most 'yes' votes would be the dedicated millage and that, in turn, would dictate which dispatch service was utilized by the village.

Davis told council a critical element of such an election would be an "accurate" and "widely distributed" fact sheet that explains to village residents "what this vote really means."

"Why shouldn't the people decide this?" Nichols asked his fellow council members. "Don't tell me it's because we're elected officials . . . That's not a good enough reason."

Helmuth disagreed.

"I think it is a good enough reason," she said. "I think we can make educated decisions. We might not always agree . . .but I'm just one vote."

President Pro-Tem Dave Bailey noted that if the voters want to see a question placed on the ballot, they can always petition for it via the referendum or initiative process.

According to village Clerk Susan Nassar, such a petition would require 392 signatures, which is equal to 15 percent of the 2,546 registered voters in the village.

Nichols noted that council can accomplish that same thing by voting to place the issue on the ballot.

Bailey asked why council should "tie the hands of" future councils on this issue by asking the voters to decide. "Why should we take that upon us?" he said. "We are elected to make decisions."

"This is a major issue that involves over $250,000," Nichols replied. "And I don't believe that three people, even myself, should determine for the residents . . . what direction they want to go. It should be their choice."

"It doesn't mean that (for) every project that comes along, we need to get residents' okay to move ahead with it," he noted.

But Nichols believes the dispatch decision is too large and too important for three people to make.

"I think you're way to close to it, emotionally," he said. "I think people need to get all the facts and let them make the decision."

Nichols said waiting for village residents to petition for a dispatch vote is "just another example of the way government can drag its feet when you can make the decision here tonight."

With regard to the fate of the $114,318 in upgraded dispatch equipment and software that the council previously agreed to purchase, Nichols said if the voters were to reject local dispatch, "Joe (Young) thinks that he can sell the equipment if we have to and get our money back."

Of that $114,318 total, $50,000 is coming from a previous payment that Oxford Township made as part of a legal settlement and $30,000 is from 9-1-1 surcharge monies provided by Oakland County. The village is actually only paying the $34,318 difference.

CJ Carnacchio is editor for The Oxford Leader. He lives in the Village of Oxford with his wife Connie and daughter Larissa. When he's not busy working on the newspaper, he enjoys cigars/pipes, Martinis/Scotch, hunting and fishing.
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