City council dives into details of proposal to merge emergency dispatch centers

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SNOCOM Executive Director Terry Peterson (Photo by Karen Orders Photography)

Whether Mountlake Terrace should participate in the merger of Snohomish County’s two emergency dispatch centers was a major topic of concern at the Mountlake Terrace City Council’s Sept. 14 work/study session.

The discussion came after SNOCOM Executive Director Terry Peterson provided an update to the council on the work of a joint task force that for 18 months has been studying the possible consolidation of SNOCOM and SNOPAC. Peterson first came before the council with information about merger details in March 2017; this latest update focused on additional specifics about the merger plan, as well as the issue of governance, something that Mountlake Terrace councilmembers feel strongly about.

During the Sept. 14 presentation, Peterson explained that SNOCOM, located in Mountlake Terrace, and SNOPAC, in Everett, were founded in the 1970s and are staffed 24 hours a day to answer police, fire and related emergency calls. SNOCOM serves roughly 30 percent of Snohomish County’s population while SNOPAC serves about 70 percent, Peterson said.

Discussions regarding a possible merger have been going on for years. In 2015, Snohomish County commissioned a study that recommended the two entities — which represent a total of 53 agencies — be combined.

Peterson said that those who have studied the issue believe that the merger would save money, ensure the two agencies have “resiliency and redundancy” in the case of major emergencies and solve a potential public safety issue related to call transfers between the two. You can read more about those issues in our previous story here.

The task force also looked at a variety of other alternatives to a complete merger, Peterson said, but in the end “full consolidation was the only solution that resolved 100 percent of the problem,” he said. The task force believes that by attrition, the merged organization can save $1 million a year, Peterson said.

If a merger occurred, the SNOPAC call center — located in the same building as the Everett Police Department South Precinct — is large enough to accommodate both operations for the next 10 years. Additional parking would be required, as would renovation of vacant building space for additional offices.

The task force has estimated the one-time transition costs for moving the merged organization to the new facility will fall in the range of $819,000 to $1.5 million.

Redundancy and resiliency “will essentially remain unchanged” because the plan calls for the SNOCOM facility in Mountlake Terrace to stay open as a “warm back-up,” Peterson said. “So the power will be on, the servers will be there, the equipment will be there.”

The facility will be tested on a regular basis so that it will be ready for use if evacuation of the SNOPAC facility is necessary during a disaster, he said.

For the past several months, Peterson said, the SNOCOM and SNOPAC boards have been discussing how a plan for how the combined agency would be governed and have finally reached consensus.

“They wanted to have a wide variety of representation,” he said. “They wanted police and fire. They wanted elected officials. They wanted operational chief-level officials. And they wanted small cities and large cities.”

However, there are 50-plus public safety agencies “and you really can’t have a 50-member board,” Peterson said. So the joint task force decided on a 15-member board — 10 dedicated to jurisdictions with police agencies and five to jurisdictions with fire agencies. There is also one additional non-voting member that would represent the handful of agencies that contract all of their police and fire service out and so are not directly served by SNOCOM/SNOPAC, Peterson explained.

Also related to governance, the task force determined that a supermajority vote (defined as 70 percent of those board members present and voting and one fire vote) would be required for major decisions like hiring an executive director or spending more than $500,000 annually, Peterson explained.

The handout explaining the proposed caucus process.

Individual board members would be selected through a “caucus process,” Peterson explained. Using the group of 10 police agencies as an example, he explained that there are four caucuses, with cities of a certain size grouped together. Mountlake Terrace, with a population of 21,090, is in a caucus with seven other cities of similar or lesser populations, and that caucus gets three seats. It is up to that caucus to elect three people total from those seven jurisdictions to sit on the merged SNOCOM/SNOPAC board. Those representatives can be either elected officials or appointed ones (such as police chiefs) but there must be one each elected and appointed out of the three.

Caucus member would be elected during a general assembly every two years.

Each of the participants pays a fee to their respective call center to cover the service, and the task force also developed a new assessment formula for the merged organizations. The result is that some agencies will see cost decreases and others — in particular, Snohomish County Fire District 1 — will see substantial increases. To address this, the task force came up with a plan for rate smoothing during the first full year of operations, that requires all agencies seeing 9 percent or greater savings to contribute up to 30 percent of that to those agencies seeing a 9 percent or greater cost increase.

The joint task force is scheduled to make a final decision on the merger at either its Oct. 12 or Oct. 19 meeting, Peterson said. If approved by two-thirds of the task force, the merger would take effect Jan. 1, 2018, which would give the agencies a full year to make the transition before full operations begin in January 2019.

The name of the new organization would be Snohomish County 9-1-1, Peterson said.

Assuming approval, the City of Mountlake Terrace would need to decide between the vote and the end of the year whether to join the merged organization, Peterson said.

If the city didn’t want to be a principal member they could choose to be a “subscriber member” with a fixed cost, but the drawback is the city wouldn’t participate in the caucus or have a say in governance.

The council had a range of questions for Peterson during his presentation, then decided to have an in-depth discussion about at the issue at the end of the meeting. Councilmembers also talked about what other alternatives the city might have, such as joining another dispatch center like NORCOM 9-1-1 in King County.

“The main thing is the governance and how you are going to control the finances,” said Mayor Jerry Smith. One concern expressed by Smith: If the merged agency decided shortly after it moved into the current SNOPAC headquarters that it needed more room, and wanted to assess participating agencies for that cost.

“If they want to build a new building, it’s got to be at least 10 years out,” Smith said. The key, he said, is to get that assurance in writing, “that you will not come back to us in two years, three years and say ‘this building is too damn small, and we need a big one.'”

“I think that’s a really good point,” added Councilmember Laura Sonmore, “because I feel like we’re taking those steps right into a corner.”

While officials have predicted a $1 million savings with the merger, “personally I don’t think we’re going to see any savings whatsoever,” Sonmore said. “They could want to remodel, they could do whatever, so I’m really on the fence. People can make promises but are we held accountable for those promises.”

Councilmember Doug McCardle said that while has concerns about governance and possibility of giving up the city’s voice with the new caucus system, he believes it’s important for the city to “get on board so we can be a member.” Otherwise, the city will have to pay a fee but not have a vote, he added.

“Let’s join in,” McCardle said.

Councilmember Bryan Wahl said that while he interested in learning about other options the city might have, he supports the merger. “I think it’s the right move to consolidate,” he said. Regarding governance, Wahl said, “in looking at the model they’ve put together, they’ve really bent over backwards to address everybody’s concerns that have been raised in the process. Is it ideal? Is it exactly what we would necessarily put together? No. But that’s the art of compromise,” Wahl said. “I’m very comfortable with what they’ve presented to us.”

Councilmember Kyoko Matsumoto Wright noted that the proposed agreement came after 18 months of negotiation, adding “I feel good with what we have. I don’t want to be a subscriber. I want to have a voice in this thing.”

Councilmember Rick Ryan agreed that while a lot of work has been put into the merger discussion, there are still many questions. “We need things in writing,” he said.

“I think they’ve done a great job on it and they’ve had the attorneys working on it,” added Councilmember Seaun Richards, who has been sitting in on the merger meetings as the council’s representative. “I’m on board. I think they’re ready to do a good job.”

At the end of the council discussion, City Manager Scott Hugill addressed questions raised by councilmembers regarding the merger. He noted that once the city signs the agreement, it can’t leave the consolidated agency for six years, and then must give 18 months’ notice to do so.

As for finding an alternative dispatch center to the merged SNOCOM/SNOPAC, Hugill said that “could be difficult from an operational standpoint.” Police and fire agencies like to be able to talk to each other, and also want to communicate with surrounding agencies via dispatch — something that couldn’t happen with a 9-1-1 call center outside of Snohomish County, he said.

Regarding concerns about being responsible for additional building costs down the road, Hugill pointed to the fact that Mountlake Terrace currently is home to the SNOCOM building, which would be used as a warm backup if the merger is approved.

“Our offset, I would argue, is the SNOCOM facility,” Hugill said, noting that with consolidation, that facility will be used as a training facilty for new dispatchers. In addition, after the city’s existing building agreement with SNOCOM expires in 2023, any rent that city can charge should be able to offset Mountlake Terrace’s contribution toward a new dispatch center building, Hugill said.

In other business, the council also received an overview from City Public Works Director John Cowling of designs for the Main Street Phase 1 project, with construction anticipated to begin in early 2018.

The Main Street Project Phase 1 includes the reconstruction of 236th St SW from I-5 to 56th Ave W, widened sidewalks, new energy efficient pedestrian and street lighting, undergrounding of overhead utilities, improvements to water, storm, and sewer systems, new bicycle lanes, improved ADA access, new traffic signals, inclusion of trees and tree grates, and other improvements. Phase 2 of the project is 56th Avenue West from 236th Street Southwest to 230th Street Southwest and is currently not fully funded.

Councilmembers also took the opportunity to thank Cowling for his work, following the news that he is leaving the city to take a job in the Tri-Cities.

The council also heard a report from City Manager Hugill regarding an interlocal agreement that assigns the city’s contract with Snohomish County Fire District 1 to the newly created South Snohomish County Fire & Rescue (RFA). The RFA was approved by Lynnwood and unincorporated Snohomish County voters in August. Under the agreement, the terms of city’s contract previously with Fire District 1 — including the pricing — will remain the same, Hugill said. The council is scheduled to approve the agreement at its Monday, Sept. 18 business meeting. It will also hear a report on the city’s economic development strategy.

Monday’s business meeting will begin at 7 p.m. in interim Mountlake Terrace City Hall, 6100 219th St. S.W., 2nd Floor. You can see the complete agenda here.

— By Teresa Wippel

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