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Potential 9-1-1 study gets mixed reviews

The potential 9-1-1 consolidation between Pierce and St. Croix counties was heard for the first time by the Pierce County Board of Supervisors March 25.

The ending left more questions than answers.

The monthly meeting was moved to the Emergency Operations control room in anticipation of a bigger-than-normal crowd from the public. The anticipation came true, as there were representatives from the Ellsworth, Elmwood, Plum City-Union, Spring Valley, Prescott and River Falls fire departments waiting to hear what the study said.

Consultant Jeff Nelson from PSC Alliance gave a brief background before getting into the challenges and benefits of the study’s findings.

Technological challenges include Pierce just completing significant technology upgrades, while St. Croix recently completed a significant facility and work station improvement.

Staffing issues revolve around Pierce dispatchers also having to work the jail, while St. Croix dispatchers are dispatchers only.

Venue also poses a challenge, as Pierce’s existing dispatch space leaves no room to expand. St. Croix recently remodeled their facility and have the space for additional work stations, Nelson said.

Yet, to deal with perception and other factors, Nelson said a neutral site is the ideal location. County Board Chairman Jeff Holst said if a neutral site isn’t the final location, the deal is off. Nelson also said other factors such as Pierce County’s proximity to the Prairie Island Nuclear Plant and St. Croix’s County interaction with Washington County in Minnesota have to be addressed.

Nelson explained governance is also an issue--i.e., cost allocation of funding, who owns what, policy and operational controls.

“This is going to require a great deal of planning,” Nelson advised the board. “Both county boards have to be of like minds to make this work.” He thought the planning could be done in 18 months, a figure Holst called optimistic.

Positives of the merger, Nelson said, were a better capacity for a large scale event with merged staff, a cost avoidance for capital purchases, consistency of methods and procedures for field personnel.

Then, there was cost. Nelson estimated $1.5 million for capital investments, which would take about 12 years to recover. Yet, there were still questions about that as well. Is the $1.5 million being evenly split between the two counties? Pierce wouldn’t go for that, as St. Croix has double the population. Another idea would be by the number of calls, which would put it at a 60 (St. Croix) – 40 (Pierce) split. On top of that, Nelson said the $1.5 million doesn’t include a neutral building, it has all the dispatchers working out of St. Croix’s building in Hudson.

Supervisor Dale Auckland said he was at a St. Croix County Public Protection committee meeting the previous week and he heard an additional $375,000 being tacked on for cost. Supervisor Cecil Bjork questioned loudly why this figure wasn’t included in their packets beforehand. Administrative Coordinator JoAnn Miller, when given a second chance, after admittedly being blindsided during the meeting, described the $375,000 as an estimate for administrative work on implementation of the merged service.

Nelson was asked for his opinion on St. Croix’s thoughts. He believes they’re interested in exploring this further. Nelson was also asked about the quality of service if dispatchers are unfamiliar with their area. He said based on his experience with the right training, the job can be done correctly.

Sheriff Nancy Hove told the board to remember finances when it comes to staffing, as St. Croix County pays their dispatchers more than Pierce does. Chief Deputy Jason Matthys questioned the timing of this, as the county’s search for a new jail location should take priority, as that matter is long overdue and the sheriff’s department “needs all hands on deck” when that search gets closer to completion.

Holst believes there is some merit to pursuing this further, “but we’re not married to it yet.” He also assured all the fire department members in attendance they will have a say in the matter as the discussion proceeds.

The issue will be taken up for a second reading on Tuesday, April 15.

Jason Schulte

Jason Schulte is a reporter for the New Richmond News since February 2015. Prior to that he spent eight years at the Pierce County Herald in Ellsworth. His duties with the News will include covering news out of Hammond and Roberts along with action from St. Croix County court system. He lives in Roberts. 

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