Stow -- Creating a regional safety dispatch center may become a reality by mid-2017, if things go as officials from Stow, Tallmadge and Cuyahoga Falls hope.
The possibility of merging dispatch operations was the focus of more than 40 officials from the three cities as they met Sept. 20 at a meeting hosted by members of Stow City Council before an audience that included dispatchers and safety forces personnel, as well as members of the public.
Stow Mayor Sara Kline, Cuyahoga Falls Mayor Don Walters and Tallmadge Mayor Dave Kline addressed those in attendance to make a case for the regional dispatch center, proposed to be located in the Summit County Health Department building on Graham Road in Cuyahoga Falls (see related story on Page 10).
All three emphasized "the timing is right" for the creation of the project.
Sara Kline stated, "Dispatch is essential to our communities, our residents and safety forces . . . there are few functions of local government more critical than dispatch."
Walters noted conversations on the issue have been taking place for about a year, with costs and efficiency reasons for the merger.
Dave Kline said "It's for our residents, for the betterment of all," and he fully supports the idea of merging.
What happens first
The first step would be the forming of a Council of Governments, most likely between the three communities.
According to Cuyahoga Falls Law Director Russ Balthis, the COG would be its own political entity, formed with representatives from each member community. Having a COG allows for more potential growth, he noted.
Stow Law Director Amber Zibritosky explained that each City Council would have to approve an agreement to form a COG. "Nothing can be done without going through each Council," she said.
It was recommended the COG be approved by the three communities by the end of this year. Tallmadge Councilman John Rensel questioned that timeframe, saying he felt it was "very ambitious" given his entity has only five meetings left in this year.
Stow Councilman Jim Costello said he thought the "aggressive time line" could be done but it "must be a win-win for all but a biggest win for citizens of each community."
Mayor Dave Kline said when Tallmadge merged its dispatch operations with Stow several years ago, "We didn't miss a beat in Tallmadge. The service has been excellent and Tallmadge was able to capture significant cost savings."
Once the COG is formed, it would establish bylaws, set fees and dues schedule and begin purchasing equipment. Annual reports would be required to be made to each Council, and the COG would become a separate employer from the cities, which would result in any present collective bargaining agreements ending.
At that time, the dispatchers would determine if they wanted to organize and if so, the COG would negotiate a new collective bargaining agreement with the new dispatcher union.
Cuyahoga Falls Councilman Paul Colavecchio, speaking to the dispatchers in attendance, described them as "the unsung heroes" and asked that if a regional center is formed, they stay in their positions.
Mayor Sara Kline stressed that she and Walters "are committed" that any dispatcher that has a job now and would want a job with the regional center, would have a job. Both mayors have said there will be no layoffs.
Walters noted that the dispatchers in Stow and Cuyahoga Falls "are very respected throughout Summit County."
Balthis said there was no intent by any of the communities to "lowball" people on wages. He added health coverage could be added to one of the COG cities or the COG could go out to find other options.
Colavecchio also inquired if there were any downsides to COGs, based on the experience of others in the state. Balthis said with it being a new political entity, it would have to be audited the same as other governmental entities and it would have to do a lot of the work that cities already do, as it is legally required to duplicate the services.
Stow Councilman Brian D'Antonio said he did not believe that by joining a COG "we will lose our great [safety] departments."
Stow Fire Capt. Paul Amonett said creating the regional dispatch center would be a cost savings to Stow and Cuyahoga Falls, especially in terms of equipment upgrades. He described Stow's radio system as "coming to end of life."
Information distributed at the meeting showed the estimated combined costs for Stow and Cuyahoga Falls to maintain separate dispatch centers would require approximately $3.4 million in upgrades. Completing a joint dispatch center showed estimated costs of $2.7 million, including about $1.5 million in build-outs at the health department, $940,000 in upgrades and a 10 percent contingency of $243,000.
Armonett, in response to questions about upgrading the equipment, said Motorola was building out the radio system to 2039, with service for that time period included in the bids. He added phone systems tend to turn over faster.
Tallmadge Councilwoman Kim Ray said she noted there were no figures for labor costs in the estimates. Cuyahoga Falls Finance Director Bryan Hoffman said his costs were to show what Stow and Cuyahoga Falls would be facing for upgrades and he would provide updates.
Rensel said residents were more concerned with service and efficiency than cost savings, so what would the COG have "to calm residents" on continued services.
Dave Kline said local safety forces personnel would be a part of the COG "team" which would assist in solving any programs that could crop up. "We would track it, fix it and keep it under control."
Stow Councilman John Pribonic said he would like to see another joint meeting scheduled. No dates were set for any future meetings.