Counties Call 911 for Budget Savings

Number of 911 call centers could be reduced by one third or more

When there’s an emergency, you call 911, and that’s exactly what 37 Minnesota counties are exploring in what could be a template for how local government can consolidate services and save money, while providing critical services. 

From northeastern Cook County to southeastern Houston County to Lac Qui Parle County on the South Dakota border, a Freedom Foundation of Minnesota review shows the decade-long effort to encourage consolidation of what’s officially called the Public Safety Answering Points (PSAP) system is gaining momentum.  

Currently, Minnesota operates 110 emergency dispatch centers that field more than two million 911 calls per year. Public safety experts say the ideal number of dispatch centers is about 20 statewide. With lives on the line in many 911 calls, no one’s suggesting cutting back on the emergency service or response time. Yet thanks to new technology, sharing services can save up to $10.5 million in local taxes and 911 phone service fees that fund the system, according to state projections.  

“We’re really focused on the enhancement of public safety, and if you save money at the end of the day, then that’s an added benefit,” said Scott Wiggins, Director of Emergency Communication Networks for the State of Minnesota. “Quicker response times, better technology to locate callers, those are the real benefits of a technically enhanced 911 call center.” 

It’s already proved to be a budget lifesaver in Big Stone County, a rural county in western Minnesota with a declining tax base and mounting budget problems, as well as an aging communications network. Last June 15th, Big Stone County closed down its 911 call center in Ortonville and combined forces with Kandiyohi County authorities in Willmar.  

“Our situation was almost a ‘perfect storm’ of events that allowed, in my opinion, a most successful consolidation that has succeeded beyond my expectations, not only in the dispatch arena, but other areas of cooperation as well,” according to Big Stone County Sheriff John Haukos. “I have the same basic infrastructure costs that an agency five times our size has and there had to be a better way of doing business.” 

Big Stone County authorities, who realized about $50,000 in savings in 2009, anticipate $100,000 in savings per year in the long run. That savings would amount to more than ten percent of the county’s law enforcement budget.  

“The thing people have to get out of their minds is county and jurisdictional lines,” said Big Stone County Sheriff John Haukos. “It’s not the technical hurdles, it’s the hurdles we’ve created for ourselves, those invisible county lines.” 

In recent years, metro counties have also significantly downsized their operations. For example,  Dakota County merged their six 911 call centers into one, Ramsey County combined four 911 call centers into one, and Washington County consolidated two 911 call centers into one. 

Though public safety officials say there’s no guarantee of budget savings, spreading the costs of staff and equipment across multiple jurisdictions provides an opportunity to economize. The average cost per 911 call in Minnesota ranges dramatically from $18 to $138 with employee salaries, benefits, and related expenses accounting for 86 per cent of operating expenses, according to state figures. Economies of scale could theoretically bring down the average cost in many cases to about $20 per call.  

In Big Stone County, the savings from consolidation have funded previously unaffordable equipment upgrades, including computers in squad cars, digital records storage and a high tech surveillance camera system that’s already helped expose a major embezzlement case.  

“It’s not a mandate, but if local units of government decide it’s in their best interest, we want to be here to assist them in funding and in education to make the transition,” Wiggins said. 

The Minnesota State Patrol is in the process of eliminating seven of its ten 911 dispatch centers. Thirty-seven counties, the cities of Hutchinson and Rochester, and the Leech Lake tribal government are actively studying banding together to provide 911 service through five regional centers. Approximately a dozen more local and county governments have quietly expressed interest in the process, but haven’t officially begun discussions yet. If the providers now involved or interested in consolidation follow through, the total number of 911 call centers in Minnesota could be reduced by a third.

                                        

Tips, comments or suggestions? Contact Tom Steward, FFM Investigative Director. 952-451-3684.

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