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Council discusses funding for Communications Center
June 27, 2013 Jerry Purvis   

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The City of Gering must decide whether to sign onto a new updated interlocal agreement that provides for emergency 911 communications, or stop receiving 911 emergency services from the county after Oct. 1.

At its Monday meeting, council members discussed a letter from the Scotts Bluff County Board to the county’s 10 cities, towns and villages. In part, it read the county is dropping out of its original interlocal agreement from 1990. Under that agreement, the county provided emergency services to the county’s towns and villages.

However, the county said that with technology advances and increased volume of calls, it can no longer provide the service, equipment and increased costs on its own.

The letter reads that if towns choose not to sign onto the new agreement by Oct. 1, “Scotts Bluff County will no longer be a participant in dispatching or communication services with your community. Effectively, this means that you are now at liberty to build your own Communication Center.”

Under the new interlocal agreement, communities would help pay for 911 service based on population. For Gering, that would be $154,000 over the next four years.

After reading the county board’s letter last week, Gering City Council member Jill McFarland said she was concerned “the county board could be so cavalier about the public safety of the citizens of Gering and the rest of the county.”

She also took exception to those who have said the municipalities aren’t paying anything for emergency communications. “Anyone who presumes the cities are not already paying is wrong,” she said. “Scottsbluff and Gering combined make up 50 percent of the county’s valuation and 50 percent of the property tax dollars. We’re already paying half of everything the county does, including the communications center.”

McFarland also pointed out at Monday’s council meeting that under the county’s new interlocal agreement, which is based on population, non-county residents are paying twice, both at the municipal and county levels.

McFarland also said she looked at the county’s budgets from last year and this year. During that time, property tax funding to the communications center was cut almost in half. In that same time, the budget for the county detention center increased by almost a million dollars.

“We need to be a good neighbor and help solve the problem,”McFarland said, “but the comm. center isn’t the problem.”

Council member Larry Gibbs agreed, saying in his many years on the council, this is only the second time they’ve been given an ultimatum in the form of an interlocal agreement.

“One of the reasons the county has a budget problem is the detention center,” Gibbs said. “It was sold to the voters as a profitable entity, but it’s turned into a financial disaster.”

Part of the budget problem with the detention center has been ongoing for years. It stems from the state’s reluctance to pay for state prisoners housed in the local jails.

McFarland offered an alternative to the county’s interlocal agreement. An independent authority, similar to the airport authority, would be formed. The agency would have its own board, made up of member representatives from the county and all municipalities and agencies served by the comm. center. Banner County and southern Sioux County could also be included in the group.

The communications authority would be outside the county’s levy limit and would have the ability to levy its own taxes to support the comm. center. As an entity, the comm. center would be completely removed from both the county’s and municipalities’ budgets.

McFarland said that if a comm. center authority were currently in place, the entire $1.1 million budget could be covered by a tax of 5/100 of a cent on property tax bills. It also eliminates the issue of double taxation for municipalities.

“I can understand the county has a budget problem with the comm. center,” McFarland said. “I think an authority would be fair for everyone and I don’t see why the county wouldn’t at least consider the option.”
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