Elma among cities facing potential 911 cost increases

The Elma City Council heard from Brenda Cantu, executive director of the Grays Harbor Communications Center, on the costs of potential improvements to the county’s Enhanced 911 (E911) infrastructure during a special budget meeting on Oct. 30.

E911 is the system which serves wireless phone users who dial 911. The discussion came in the context of concerns about law enforcement and emergency personnel being unable to communicate with dispatch in certain dead zones across the county.

Cantu reported that a state budget shortfall means all counties across the state are anticipating a 50-percent cut in the annual funding received from the state for 911 services. In Grays Harbor County that is a reduction of about $26,000, she said. Apart from the state funding, the cost of E911 service is shared by municipalities and other entities across the county.

The City of Elma already is looking at a substantial increase in its portion of E911 costs, however, the need for three communication tower projects to improve service may potentially drive costs for Elma and other entities even higher.

Cantu presented three potential communication tower projects in Oakville, McCleary and Westport, each with the aim of dramatically improving communications services:

– In McCleary, costs would involve $250,000 for a tower and $275,000 for equipment. The City of McCleary is actively looking at ways to potentially reduce these costs.

– In Oakville, costs also would involve $250,000 for a tower and $275,000 for equipment, but the Chehalis Tribal Police Department have conditionally offered to pay the $275,000 in equipment costs. However, Cantu explained that the Chehalis Tribal Police Department also is considering entering into an agreement with Thurston County for communication services. If that were to occur, then their offer would be off the table.

– In Westport, a pre-existing water tower could potentially serve as the tower and $150,000 in equipment would be needed.

Cantu said Grays Harbor’s 911 administrative board is looking at different scenarios for how to pay for the projects. Money will potentially have to be borrowed, she said.

Since the inception of the E911 system more than two decades ago, fees have been shared across the county’s entities based on percentage of population and percentage of calls. Grays Harbor’s E911 administrative board is now looking at the possibility of going to a payment system based on per-call cost. County commission chair Vickie Raines, who was present at the meeting, noted the potential new arrangement would have the most adverse financial effect on the City of Aberdeen.

Asked by council members how Elma would cover any cost increases, Mayor Jim Sorensen said the city does have adequate funds in reserve and has been very conservative in its revenue estimates.

“Nobody wants to pay more,” Cantu at one point contributed, “but I think there is certainly a good reason why we need to. It’s certainly not to pad any accounts.”

The economic challenges of the past decade have prevented the E911 system from being kept as up-to-date as it might otherwise have been, both Cantu and Raines mentioned.

Speaking to the need for improved communications, Elma Police Chief Susan Shultz stated, “You get out in the rural areas of the county, there are times you cannot hear the deputies and the deputies cannot hear dispatch.”

Also on Oct. 30, Shultz spoke to the council about the possibility of adding another police officer at an overall cost of $120,000. Another option would be to have two full-time clerks for the police department. Currently there is one full-time clerk and one part-time clerk. This arrangement would allow for constant staffing and better enforcement of code issues, Shultz said. The exact costs for the clerk position was not immediately clear.

Further discussion focused on the possibility of moving court services from Elma to the county courthouse in Montesano, for an eventual estimated annual savings of $80,000. Shultz said the transport of jail inmates to Montesano for court could pose issues on certain days due to police department staffing. Sorensen clarified for the council that the city can afford to keep the courts but that he just wanted to present the council with the possible option of saving money.