Weller, Jamison express reservations about a city-operated dispatch

HIGH SPRINGS – Despite reservations from several High Springs police officers and city commissioners, the High Springs City Commission decided on Tuesday to go forward with bringing back emergency dispatch services to the city.  The change would take effect after the current contract with the county expires, barring any compromises made regarding required changes to city street names and cost.  Emergency dispatch services are currently handled through the Alachua County Sheriff’s Office (ASO) Combined Communications Center (CCC).

During the special meeting, the decision was split 3 to 2, with Commissioners Sue Weller and Scott Jamison voting against the measure.

“Do I believe the dispatch back in our control is good? Yes, I do,” Jamison said. “But I’m not convinced we can adequately prepare for it, technologically, staff it and assume control or take on the added financial obligations that come with it.”

Bringing the dispatch back to the City of High Springs has been a contentious issue with proponents of a city-operated dispatch saying it would allow for autonomy, local knowledge and control of tax dollars. Commissioner Linda Gestrin warned of a “perfect storm” of events occurring in 2015, which would consist of a $15 million Next Generation Radio Communication system being installed at the Alachua County Combined Communication Center.

Jamison disputed Gestrin’s warning, saying there will be no bill arriving in 2015 for an updated communications system. After talking to Alachua County Sheriff Sadie Darnell, he learned that the new radio system will be operating as early as September 2012, that cities within Alachua County have already been paying for the system, and will continue to make payments until 2020.

If the dispatch returns to High Springs, Jamison believes there is no way at this time to know the exact costs the city will incur because of varying employment costs, such as health insurance.

“This will be their sewer system,” Jamison said, referring to commissioners in favor of the city-run dispatch center and comparing it to the city’s centralized sewer system which has generated controversy within the commission and in certain areas of the community.

The ASO updated all of the High Springs technology and radio systems when the CCC took over the city’s dispatching duties. All of that technology will go away when High Springs moves back to a local system. The ability to stay up-to-date on technology, Jamison said, is part of his concerns. He also expressed reservations about not knowing how many dispatchers will be required, what kind of training they will need and what equipment the city will need to buy.

Weller said the CCC provides the city with $164,000 in savings each year. She estimates that by the time High Springs reaches a population over 6,000, the CCC will have saved the City over $600,000 compared to what it would have cost to bring the dispatch back.

“I think officer safety is paramount,” Weller said. “Our own officers have indicated that they would rather us stay with the CCC.”

During the Tuesday, May 15, workshop, two officers expressed concerns about safety. Sergeant Antoine Sheppard said the majority of police officers wanted the dispatch to stay with the CCC. The connection with the CCC adds benefits that protect civilians and officers, such as automatic back-up by ASO officers and the address of the caller.

Prior to the city switching to the CCC, High Springs relied on the caller to give his or her address. If the call was disconnected or the location unknown to the caller, the police department would have to track down the location before it could send police officers. In the past, this has taken up to 45 minutes, Sheppard said. With the CCC, the address is sent automatically with the call.

Weller said the street names could be changed to railroad or spring names. For people who identify High Springs as a railroad town or a gateway to the springs, this method could provide a “home-town” feel.

Vice-Mayor Bob Barnas said his concerns are with the CCC about the tiered caller system and the ambiguous costs.

“We have the officers and the community’s safety in mind,” Gestrin said. This is our opportunity to rebuild and make it the best it can be, she added.

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