County discusses dispatch options

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Dialing 911 isn’t always a simple thing.

When someone calls for emergency services, that call goes to a relevant dispatcher. In the county at large, 911 calls go to the Socorro city dispatch office, then to the Socorro County Sheriffs. In the early morning, or along I-25 outside of the city, those calls get sent to the District 11 state police dispatcher, who contacts county sheriff’s department officers. The county does not have its own regional dispatcher, and this is done at no cost to the county.

So far, this arrangement has worked, but due to the economy, state dispatch may cut its late night/early morning shift and relevant dispatch services. Sheriff Lesman Torres described the shift as a typically quiet one.

County employees contacted the dispatch service, asking if the county could provide financial support to keep the service going, possibly paying for an employee.

“This is going to cost us something somewhere,” said County Manager Delilah Walsh. The dispatch service reported this was not an option. Walsh and Torres outlined three options during the Board of County Commissioners’ meeting on Tuesday, July 24.

The county could do nothing. 911 calls in the county made during the hours in question would be forwarded to the District 5 office, which primarily services Albuquerque. The District 5 dispatcher would dispatch Socorro County officers. Walsh and Torres agreed this was not desirable.

The county could route its dispatch through the city dispatch. All 911 calls made after hours would be dispatched by the city, which would receive support in exchange. Previously, Walsh met with Mayor Ravi Bhasker and City Clerk Pat Salome to discuss this, but Bhasker and Salome felt uncomfortable with the liability the city would face in this situation. If a call failed to go through or if a county officer failed to respond, the city could be held responsible.

The county could build a regional dispatch center to service the whole county. All 911 calls, 24 hours a day, would go through this center, then out to whatever city or county emergency service was needed.

Such a dispatch center would be an independent government entity in charge of its own employment. The dispatch center would only be liable for damages if it could be proved that its employees acted in error.

A dispatch center takes in no income; Walsh suggested costs be split according to call volume by source, similar to Sierra and Valencia counties. The county’s estimated contribution would be 30 percent.

The main obstacles to this are cost and staffing. Though equipping the dispatch center would be mostly covered by federal grants, the center would cost between $500,000 and $600,000 per year. Operating costs only come to $5,000 per year, according to Walsh’s math — the rest all goes to staffing.

Staffing a dispatch center is no mean feat. All personnel have to be trained and certified. Enough personnel must be hired to staff the center 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.

However, Walsh said Bhasker and Salome supported the idea of establishing a central dispatch for the whole county. They said the city dispatch could dispatch county resources as a temporary measure if a county dispatch were decided upon.

What was specifically brought to the table at Tuesday’s meeting was a gross receipts tax of 0.25 percent which could fund a dispatch center. Bhasker had estimated it would bring in around $150,000, but Walsh estimated it could bring in $500,000.

It would be too late to get such a tax out as a special election before the November ballot. If the board decides to commit to this, the tax could be approved in time for the November ballot.

“If (a tax) can be popular, this is one of the most popular to pass,” said County Attorney Adren Nance. He cited Valencia County as an example — voters there passed a tax to fund the dispatcher over one to fund the jail. The board was wary of adding a tax to the November ballot which might compete with other taxes it hoped to pass. District 5 commissioner Juan Gutierrez suggested the board wait until after November.

The District 11 state dispatch, though, made it clear to Walsh and Torres that nothing was set yet. The county asked Walsh to do a thorough cost analysis of the situation and all major options. Walsh estimated the county has three months to decide on a plan of action.