Benton County commissioners in a split vote Tuesday approved a draft of an agreement that would set the Tri-Cities on a path toward having a regional emergency communication system.
The pact also needs approval from Franklin County and the cities of Richland, Pasco and Kennewick. It's a revised version of an agreement brought forward a few months ago -- one Benton County commissioners were reluctant to sign.
The county recently proposed some changes, which went to the other jurisdictions and came back with some tweaks.
"I think what (the revised pact) does -- I think it gives us some comfort levels that some of us were looking for," said Commissioner Jerome Delvin.
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It allows the process to "continue down the road, so if a merger makes sense at the end then we're ready to move," Delvin said.
Commissioner Jim Beaver voted against it, taking issue with the removal of language in the section dealing with a cost-benefit analysis. The county proposed that the analysis would include looking at how Benton County, Richland and Kennewick would be compensated for money they already have spent on their upgraded radio system.
But the pact now states the analysis would include looking at the "value of existing system infrastructure."
"The piece that was eliminated -- and I'm not quite sure who keeps eliminating this, because this is the message that I think Benton County's been sending all along -- that (piece) translates into, are you going to come to the party with some money (to put into) a multimillion dollar system that was paid for by the taxpayers of Benton County?" Beaver said during the meeting.
He said the county already is involved in other cross-jurisdictional agreements that aren't equitable, and another option would be to allow Franklin County and Pasco to "utilize the system we have" for a fee.
Commissioner Shon Small said he's comfortable with the pact. It sets the path to "get us the answers to verify (regionalization) is the right direction," he told the Herald.
Under the agreement, a consultant would be hired -- using a $100,000 grant from the state -- to help design a regionalization plan.
Before the recent revisions, the wording went further, saying the consultant would assist "in the design and implementation of an action plan resulting in creation of a regionalized emergency communication (E-911) system" in the two counties.
The idea of combining Franklin County's dispatch center and the Southeast Communications Center in Benton County has been discussed for years.
A study by the consulting firm eGov suggested regionalization could improve service and save money.
The two counties in late 2011 approved an agreement with the state for a separate feasibility study. But that study didn't happen, and instead the regionalization agreement eventually was brought forward.
The other jurisdictions viewed the pact as an intermediate step, with a final decision about whether to combine the systems in the two counties coming later. But Benton County officials felt it committed them to a merger and said they had more questions before they were ready to decide.