More calls, more money for county 911

Though increased costs for Island County's 911 dispatching made public officials wince during the fall's budgeting season, line item expenses for the service remain untouchable because of its perceived importance.

Using a formula based on 911 call volume from each of the county's emergency and law enforcement services, the Island County Emergency Services Call Center (I-COM) is greeting 2002 with a 9 percent increase in fees. For agencies such as the Island County Sheriff's Office, the Langley Police Department and Fire Protection District 3, the increased cost to taxpayers is the price of doing business. FD3 Chief Don Smith said the efficiency and speed of dispatch provided by I-COM proves the system's value when lives are in danger.

"It doesn't have a price tag," he said.

Next year FD3 will pay $30,549 for dispatch service on an estimated 1,300 fire, rescue and medical calls. Dollar-wise, the price is up 6.8 percent over what is expected for the current year. The situation is the same for the sheriff's office and the Langley Police Department. Call volume is expected to rise, so the sheriff will absorb a 7.4-percent price hike, while Langley's I-COM fees are expected to jump 12.5 percent.

In terms of total dollars and call volume, the sheriff's office is I-COM's biggest customer. The $546,761 it will pay in 2002 is close to half of I-COM's user fee income, and will pay for dispatch on more than 23,000 calls. Sheriff Mike Hawley said this week there is no question that the service is worth the price.

Prior to I-COM's creation in 1996, dispatching was done by a number of agencies. On South Whidbey, the fire district received its dispatches from Whidbey Telephone Company operators for years, while paramedics were called out by the Oak Harbor Police Department and Southend deputies relied on an internal dispatch center at the sheriff's office.

Though this patchwork system worked, said Chief Smith, it did not allow for the cross-agency sharing of information possible with I-COM, nor did it support Enhanced 911, a system that allows dispatchers to pinpoint the origin of an emergency call automatically. E-911 was reality in many parts of the nation by 1985 -- Island County did not have the capability until three years ago.

Although I-COM is supported by most agencies, several members are concerned over increased dispatch fees. Citing a 100 percent increase in what the city of Langley pays for 911 service since 1997, Mayor Lloyd Furman said big annual price surges are going to become difficult to afford in the future. While cities and other municipalities are limited in the amount of revenue they can generate, I-COM's fees are based only on a formula related to call volume.

Furman said he is envious of an agency that is able to pass all its costs on to its users.

"It's making it difficult to maintain a good financial position," he said.

Still, Furman had no complaints about the system itself.

"The I-COM system, I believe, works better," he said.

Tom Shaughnessy, I-COM's director, said the formula the agency uses to calculate user fees does soften the blows of sudden increases in call volume. The agency takes into account the past three years of call totals, then multiplies those totals by a factor that allows it to cover its costs for the year.

Within the confines of that formula, there is no upper limit on an annual increase. If an agency's calls double every year for three years, it will pay for the increase in full.

Smith said there is no way around the increases, especially on South Whidbey. With the popularity of Southend living on the rise, emergency services are expected to increase in the future, as well.

"There's a lack of recognition that the Southend has grown substantially," he said.

Next year South Whidbey will get representation within I-COM when FD3 Commissioner Bob Elliot joins the seven-member I-COM board of commissioners. Until now, only representatives from Camano Island, Central and North Whidbey have been voting members of the board.

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