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The 411 On The 911 Public Safety Tax

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The TwinCom 911 Dispatch Center in Sterling.

A local issue on this year’s November ballot that has not received a lot of public attention is a proposed half-percent sales tax that would go toward continuing Whiteside County 911 Dispatch services at their current level and possibly allowing future upgrades including the consolidation of the two current centers.

“To be clear the Public Safety Tax not a 911 Tax,” said Karl Kovarik, E9-1-1 Coordinator for Whiteside County.  “County residents already pay a 911 surcharge of $1.50 per phone line, which is collected by the state and distributed to each county.” The surcharge funds are used to maintain hardware, software, and some salaries. Unfortunately, Kovarik says the surcharge along with yearly fees charged to county municipalities have not been able to keep up with the costs to run the two county dispatch centers. Whiteside County is served by a center located at the Sheriff’s Department in Morrison and the other in the City of Sterling building.  

The county 911 system consolidated into two centers in 2017 when the cities of Rock Falls and Sterling along with CGH consolidated into one dispatch center called Twincom. “That eliminated some obstacles involved in dispatching services but did not save much on costs,’ said Kovarik.

The 911 Dispatch Center at the Whiteside County Sheriff’s Department is one of two centers that operate in the county.

Currently the system is underfunded by $500,000 each year. The costs of updating technology involved in the centers along with personnel have continued to rise outpacing revenue. The sales tax would amount to $.50 per $100.00 on those items that are normally subject to sales tax. If the tax passes the county could garner as much as $1.6 – $2.3 million per year which would eliminate any system debt and free up municipalities from paying an annual fee. Prophetstown Police Chief Bruce Franks says his department pays $3,000.00 annually to the county for dispatching services.

The service employs twenty-four dispatchers, which is the majority of the cost of the operation. Assistant Dispatch Director Katie Pilgrim pointed out that the dispatchers do much more than just dispatch emergency services. “Our dispatchers enter information for various crimes into local and state data bases as well as handle administrative and follow up calls for several agencies.” The two centers handle tens of thousands of calls each year.

If the tax is voted down Kovarik says a few of the options include charging a dispatch fee to each municipal police, fire, and ambulance service, which will greatly increase the costs for those entities. Another option would be to reduce staff and services.

If the tax is approved Kovarik says the centers will be able to handle upgrades in technology in a more timely fashion and work toward a goal of one center to serve the entire county. That goal is much more complicated than just finding a building large enough to house the operation. “There are a lot of federal mandates required for a new facility that will be very expensive,” said Pilgrim.

The centers continue to move forward at a slow pace with new technology including the use of “Next Generation 911”, which will convert analog 911 systems to a digital platform which will allow dispatch centers to make use of text, pictures, and video.

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