A decision about whether to form a regional emergency dispatch system for the Tri-Cities could be on the horizon after years of discussion.
Local officials are reviewing a draft agreement between Benton and Franklin counties and the cities of Kennewick, Richland and Pasco on the topic of consolidating their dispatch centers.
Officials are split, however, on whether the agreement is an interim step or a commitment to actually move ahead with regionalization.
Several local leaders told the Herald the agreement only calls for a consultant to create an action plan. A final decision would come later, once the plan with more details is complete.
But others read it differently. Some Benton County staffers have said they view the agreement as committing the local governments to move ahead.
And the county's not ready to make that decision.
"There are a whole list of questions that need to be answered," said Commissioner Jim Beaver.
Beaver did say he is open to looking at combining the two counties' dispatch operations.
There seems to be some consensus there.
"I think consolidation is clearly in the best interests of the Tri-Cities" and all the jurisdictions seem open to it, said Brad Peck, a Franklin County commissioner who's part of a steering committee working on the issue. "If there are going to be difficulties, it will simply be in the mechanics and details. I'm confident we can work those out, whatever they might happen to be."
Peck said he's open to changing the agreement's wording if needed. He also pointed out there's an exit clause allowing parties to pull out.
Benton County commissioners are expected to discuss the agreement in a special session Feb. 27.
The pact, as it reads now, says "qualified contract personnel" would be hired "to assist in the design and implementation of an action plan resulting in creation of a regionalized emergency communication (E-911) system throughout Benton and Franklin counties."
It says Franklin County will administer the state grant used to pay for the consultant. It also lays out a timeline to strive for, including complete migration to a regional system by the end of 2014.
The idea of combining emergency communications in the two counties has been discussed for years.
A study more than a year ago by the firm eGov Consulting suggested the move could save money and improve services. In late 2011, the two counties approved a memorandum of understanding with the state for a separate feasibility study. That study apparently never happened.
Benton County Commissioner Jerome Delvin said he feels the agreement needs tweaks, but he also thinks consolidation "makes sense in a lot of areas."
Commissioner Shon Small, the county's representative on the steering committee, said he sees the intent of the pact as exploring whether merging is the right choice.
"I am very optimistic," he said. "However, we have to take a look at this with our eyes wide open."