|Gering seeks legal action over interlocal agreement|
|December 10, 2013 Jerry Purvis|
The future of Scotts Bluff County’s interlocal agreement to provide 911 emergency communications has been turned over to the legal system.
The county’s agreement set a Dec. 17 deadline for municipalities to sign the pact and make the required payment for upgrades to the comm. center, or risk losing 911 services. The agreement states that if a municipality chooses not to sign onto the agreement, dispatching services would be discontinued after the Dec. 17 deadline.
Dispatching services include non-emergency 911 calls such as noise complaints and requests for service; however, emergency calls would continue to be handled until Jan. 31, 2014, allowing the municipality time to set up their own dispatching center.
After meeting in closed session to discuss potential litigation, members of the Gering City Council voted unanimously to reject the county’s proposal and approved an alternate prepared by the city. In doing so, they authorized City Attorney Jim Ellison to pursue litigation against the county to keep them from cutting off 911 emergency services.
For several months, there have been points of contention over the county’s proposal. Gering originally had problems with how the funding formula was calculated but later accepted the county’s terms yet two major issues still remain. One is the open-ended nature of the county’s agreement. Another is who is responsible for funding ongoing maintenance of the comm. center’s backup system.
The advisory board that oversees comm. center operations is also an issue, as the county’s proposal has no specified requirement as to how often the board must meet.
The county’s proposal also states that if a municipality objects to their contribution share and fails to budget for it, their agreement with the county will be automatically voided and monies already paid will be forfeited.
Some council members said that because of that stipulation, the city would have no recourse for modifying objectionable terms in the agreement if they signed it.
“The whole problem from the beginning is that the county’s agreement has been presented to us on a take it or leave it basis,” said council member Larry Gibbs. “The county told us to use it or don’t participate. I haven’t seen a lot of give and take on their part.”
County Commissioner Mike Marker, representing the county at the meeting, said the only reason for the agreement is for public safety. “The system we have now is 28 years old,” he said. “We’re now taking more than 1,000 calls a day at times and the system can’t handle it. We have to do something. We can disagree on the language but our number one priority is our citizens.”
After the meeting, Gibbs said they rejected the county’s agreement because it was open-ended and contained no specified dollar amount for commitments from the municipalities.
“Our contract specifies, based on the numbers the county gave us, how much money they require from us over the next three years,” Gibbs said. “It also says that at the end of those three years the contract ends and if there’s a need for additional funding, we’ll talk about it then. An open-ended contract is a blank check. As a council member, I don’t feel I should be giving a blank check to the county.”
The county’s agreement specifies that Gering will pay just over $114,000 over the next three years for the comm. center. Council offered to pay the county the first year installment of $59,000 if allowed some time to hammer out the differences in the two agreements, but was rejected by County Commissioners Marker and Sherry Blaha, who were in attendance for the council meeting.
Minatare, one of the municipalities included in the agreement, has indicated it would submit a check for $5,645 to the county for its first-year payment, along with Gering’s version of the contract that includes a three-year term. Both commissioners said the county would reject both the check and the revised contract.
“It’s interesting that we offered to pay the county $114,000 with minor modifications to the contract and they turned it down,” said council member Jill McFarland after the meeting.
Gering Mayor Ed Mayo said he was saddened and disappointed such drastic action became necessary. “We’ve tried to leave the door open for discussion but the rhetoric just got more coarse and harsh. I hate to see people play politics with public safety.”
Marker also said he was disappointed because it will cost taxpayers more money in legal fees, possibly more than what the county is asking for.
Mitchell and Morrill town councils both met on Dec. 10 and approved the county’s interlocal agreement.
Mitchell Mayor Brian Taylor said they still have a number of concerns about the agreement, but with the formation of an advisory board, those issues can be ironed out.
“The idea is that we need to move along,” Taylor said. “It’s unfortunate we had to spend as much time as we did to get to this point. The people are telling me we need to more forward and solve the problem rather than just talking about it.”
Denise Sinner, chairman of the Morrill Village Board, said she knew all along the board would sign the county’s agreement. “We need to have fire and police protection for our residents,” she said. “The county’s agreement was the only way we were going to have that.”