Upper Arlington City Council this week approved the hiring of a consultant to study the merits and feasibility of consolidating its 911 dispatch center with those of Dublin, Hilliard and Worthington.
Despite concerns from some on council about the multijurisdictional commitment to the shared-services agreement, council members Monday, Jan. 28, unanimously approved hiring Ebensburg, Pa.-based LR Kimball to conduct a 911 services consolidation study.
The cost of the contract is $81,316, but council approved spending $90,000 to cover contingencies should additional costs arise.
Of that, $51,316 will be covered by a Local Government Innovation Fund grant, which has been awarded to Upper Arlington from the Ohio Department of Development.
Subsequently, Upper Arlington, Dublin, Hilliard and Worthington each have committed to consolidate 911 dispatch services should the project prove feasible and offer opportunities for long-term cost savings, with each paying $10,000 to fund the study.
Upper Arlington Assistant City Manager Joe Valentino said the study will help the communities determine if the merger makes sense logistically, as well as financially.
In addition to a cost analysis to see what equipment, software and other technology would be needed for a consolidation, Valentino said the study will seek to determine if individual communities' overhead can be reduced and how emergency dispatch staffing would be affected.
"The objective of the study is to identify opportunities, costs, capacities, equipment needs and potential obstacles associated with a joint dispatching center in order to determine if a consolidated approach is feasible, attainable and can achieve the desired cost savings," he said. "The goal of this exploration is to create a path forward to consolidate services and save resources without compromising safety, efficiency or quality of service."
According to the Upper Arlington Community Affairs Office, Upper Arlington's 911 communications center is staffed at 17,056 hours per year.
Including equipment maintenance, office space and utilities, the city annually spends about $830,000 on 911 dispatch services.
According to the Worthington Police Department, Worthington spent about $1.18 million for 911 dispatch personnel, maintenance, equipment and other materials and supplies in 2012.
In addition to possible cost savings, the impending study will seek to determine if 911 services can be dispatched more efficiently through a consolidation.
Currently, 911 calls from cellphone users in Upper Arlington, Worthington and Hilliard go to call centers in Columbus or Dublin, because Upper Arlington, Hilliard and Worthington do not have the technology to receive 911 calls from mobile phones. The Dublin and Columbus 911 call centers must transfer emergency response information to the other communities after receiving calls.
If the call centers were to be consolidated, cellphone calls would go to a single location, which could more quickly direct emergency crews to incident locations.
Valentino said the communities agreed to partner and consider the consolidation based largely on their proximity to one another and a willingness to work together. If the consolidation occurs, it would be in keeping with calls from Gov. John Kasich and other state leaders who have said local governments should seek opportunities to share services as "local government funding" and other funding from the state continues to dwindle.
On Jan. 28, Upper Arlington City Council members Erik Yassenoff and Deborah Johnson expressed reservations about authorizing the funding of the study before the other communities had passed legislation agreeing to fund their portions of the study.
However, both ultimately voted in favor of authorizing the contract after receiving assurances from City Manager Theodore Staton that he would not sign the contract unless the other communities had made funding commitments.
Staton and council members Frank Ciotola and John Adams also said multijurisdictional agreements typically are fragile, and the city didn't want to send a message that its commitment to the 911 consolidation effort was wavering.
"Four communities said, 'If we receive the (Local Government Innovation Fund) grant, we're in,' " Staton said. "I have no intention of signing the contract if you approve it unless we get (financial) commitments.
"Unreasonable delays could cause the other communities to look elsewhere."
Adams said the project is of vital importance to the city as it looks to improve emergency-response services and potentially lower costs.
"I don't think we want to do anything to slow down the process," he said.
If the study is commissioned, Valentino said "a lot" could happen, depending on its findings.
"In an ideal environment, the study will lay the groundwork for the four communities and related townships to work together and form a partnership for 911 services," he said. "If a consolidated approach is feasible and financially attainable, services are not diminished and resources can be saved without compromising safety efficiency or quality, some sort of combined service will be implemented."