A decision about whether to move forward with a regional emergency communications and records system in the Tri-Cities is on the horizon after years of discussion, debate and planning.
An interlocal agreement laying out how the system would be governed is expected to be ready for consideration by Benton and Franklin county commissioners and the Richland, Pasco and Kennewick city councils by late summer.
Benton and Franklin counties have separate 911 systems, and law enforcement in the two counties use different radio systems.
That's led to issues from cellphone calls routed to the wrong 911 system and communication problems among the law enforcement agencies.
Franklin County Commissioner Brad Peck said that while regionalization might not be appropriate for all types of public services, in this case "we're a highly mobile community. At any given time, anyone in the community could be in any part of the Tri-Cities and need services from 911.
"We all have a common interest in having a system that is reliable, affordable and that isn't hindered by the inefficiencies that come from the fractured system we have now," said Peck, who is part of a steering committee of local officials that has been working on the regionalization issue.
Richland Police Chief Chris Skinner said the concept of regionalizing emergency communications is a good one. "You don't have to look very far to see other areas that have gone to (the model). There is an economy of scale you can take advantage of," he said, adding it also seems to make sense operationally in this area.
A consultant has been working since last year on a business plan that includes a picture of costs, and Skinner said that will provide critical information in deciding about moving ahead. "It's the big piece of the pie (officials are) waiting on," he said.
A state grant is covering the planning work done by the consultant -- the Texas-based Sciens Consulting, also known as eGov.
The two counties and three cities in spring 2013 approved an agreement that called for using a consultant to help design a plan for consolidation, and in October representatives from Sciens presented a conceptual design during a bicounty meeting that drew dozens of local officials.
While the process has taken time, Benton County Commissioner Shon Small said it has been important to be deliberate. "We've done our due diligence. We're talking a multimillion dollar system. We've got to make sure we take every step possible to ensure this is the right direction, that this is going to be in the best interest of the citizens," he said.
Small also is part of the steering committee, along with Peck and the city managers from Richland, Kennewick and Pasco.
Pasco City Manager Gary Crutchfield said he wants to see the process keep moving.
He expects that regionalization will prove to be a smart option financially, noting it would be easier for the local entities to absorb the costs of new technology as a group.
He also feels it would improve public safety.
"From a cost-effective standpoint and service, it makes sense to regionalize. It answers all the questions and should save money," he said.
-- Sara Schilling: 509-582-1529; firstname.lastname@example.org; Twitter: @saraTCHerald