A divided and skeptical Benton County Commission voted Tuesday to support an agreement to unite 911 dispatch operations with Franklin County and Pasco early next year.
The commission voted 2-1 to endorse a transition plan and interlocal agreement that sets the stage to convert the Southeast Communications Center or SECOMM in Richland into a regional 911 dispatch operation.
SECOMM will field all emergency calls originating from Benton and Franklin counties.
Thanks to the rise of mobile phones, thousands of emergency calls in the Mid-Columbia are routed to the wrong center each year, resulting in dropped calls and delayed responses with results that can be tragic of medical or fire assistance is delayed.
Commissioners Jerome Delvin and Shon Small voted for the deal. Chairman Jim Beaver voted against it, having previously objected to bringing Franklin County on as a partner rather than as a fee-paying subscriber.
The 911 deal was not on Benton County’s official agenda for its regular Tuesday meeting. Delvin, who met with officials in Richland last week after doubts arose that his fellow commissioners would support the consolidation plan, called for a vote during the “other business” section of the agenda.
The deal approved Tuesday will make Franklin County and Pasco full partners in the dispatch system after they meet a series of progress goals and make a combined $1 million capital contribution to the system.
The transition plan and interlocal agreement must still pass muster with the Kennewick, Richland and West Richland city councils, as well as a myriad of local fire commissions.
We’re happy that it’s finally coming to fruition after years of discussion. Barring any crazy changes, I’m sure we’ll sign it next week.
Bob Koch, Franklin County Commission
Benton County’s approval is critical. It is a key player in emergency services in the region and without its support, the dream of a single 911 dispatch operation serving the Mid-Columbia was unlikely to advance.
The Richland City Council is expected to consider the matter next week while the Kennewick council has not yet scheduled a vote.
The Franklin County Commission will likely vote at its June 14 meeting, said Bob Koch, the commission’s chairman this year.
“We’re happy that it’s finally coming to fruition after years of discussion. Barring any crazy changes, I’m sure we’ll sign it next week,” Koch said.
Benton County’s Shon Small had to be convinced that Franklin County with its smaller population and tax base won’t be a financial drain on the 911 system before he cast the deciding vote.
Specifically, Small worried Franklin County wouldn’t be able to pay assessments for capital investments in equipment and upgrades.
Fretting over Franklin County’s finances is nothing new for Small or the Benton commission. Franklin County’s weaker financial position has long been a point of contention between the two counties, which jointly operate a Superior Court district, human services and other functions.
They’re ready and prepared to come onto the system and to be good partners.
Richland Police Chief Chris Skinner
As recently as least year, Benton leaders claimed they subsidized Franklin’s share of court administrative costs. Benton even attempted to dissolve the century-old Benton-Franklin Superior Court district for financial reasons, even after the entire judiciary objected.
The subsidy complaint proved to be overstated and the attempt to end the bicounty court district petered out over lack of interest on Franklin County’s side.
Small initially wanted the 911 transition agreement to automatically demote Franklin County to “subscriber” status if it failed to keep its financial commitments. Franklin County regards subscriber status as a deal killer.
Richland Police Chief Chris Skinner, who oversees SECOMM, assured Small there’s no guarantee any of the 911 partners will have enough money to cover unexpected costs, such as replacing broken equipment or installing a new communications tower.
“I don’t think any of us have any idea where that money is coming from on either side of the river, the Benton side or the Franklin side,” Skinner said.
Skinner noted that Franklin County made a show of good faith when it took on a share of the cost to upgrade radio equipment it does not own.
“They’re ready and prepared to come onto the system and to be good partners,” he assured Small.
It’s a win-win for community safety and it is a win-win for emergency service workers safety out there. It’s just going to be good.
Franklin County Sheriff Jim Raymond
Franklin County Sheriff Jim Raymond, a strong advocate for a single 911 operation, said it’s a no-brainer for public safety. The current system puts the public and first-responders at risk.
“It’s a win-win for community safety and it is a win-win for emergency service workers safety out there,” he said. “It’s just going to be good.”
There is a growing sense of urgency to combine 911 operations follows a decade of fits and starts.
The current system includes the state-of-the-art SECOMM system operated by Benton County Emergency Services in Richland and a separate functionally obsolete system operated by Franklin County.
Anticipating future consolidation, Franklin County has banked 911 fees paid by phone customers to pay its share of the eventual consolidation into SECOMM.
When that happens, its system will go off line and all local calls will flow to one center. Its dispatchers will have the opportunity to apply for positions with SECOMM.