Joint dispatch system advancing; departments considering merger
LORI HOLLY of the Journal Sentinel staff
(WAUKESHA COUNTY, Wis.) -- Nearly four years after county and municipal officials first agreed to study the possibility of merging the area's 10 dispatch centers, county leaders are inching closer to making the concept a reality.
But questions -- and hurdles -- remain.
"It's pretty clear some information needs to be flushed out yet," said Jeff Landin, County Executive Dan Finley's chief of staff, who is working on the project. "We're not standing still, but we're not moving forward to the point of resolutions."
Questions remain over how to govern the new system and assign costs to communities. But Finley said he is pleased that local leaders continue to hammer away at the issue.
"We thought from the beginning it would be a 10-year process," Finley said, adding that he hopes the county will see the first consolidations by 2003.
The diligence of local officials shows that, while details need to be worked out, the concept is widely supported, he said.
In fact, one consolidation is already moving forward.
The Lake Area Communications System and the Sheriff's Department are nearing a deal to merge.
"That will probably happen toward the end of the year," Landin said.
Formed in 1979, the Lake Area Communications System provides emergency dispatch service to the City of Delafield, the villages of Hartland and Chenequa, and the city and village of Pewaukee.
A 1990 study conducted by the county concluded that centralizing the police and fire dispatching centers could save taxpayers money in the long run and would improve service. The concept later died but was revived in 1997 by the Waukesha County Cooperation Council, a consortium of municipal leaders Finley formed to seek ways municipalities can cooperate.
Although the progress of consolidating the dispatch services has been slow, it's an example of how attitudes toward shared services are changing among municipal and county leaders, officials say.
Finley said Waukesha County has taken the issue one step further and is exploring the possibility of a partnership with Racine County for backup dispatch services. Racine County is close to consolidating several of its centers into one centralized dispatch operation.
The backup system would come into play if the system in either county failed, Finley said.
Shrinking state aid and other factors are forcing officials to change their attitudes toward cooperating, said Racine County Executive Jean Jacobson.
"I've been in government for 21 years," she said. "In no other time in my tenure has it been more important to try to work together."
Racine County hopes to have the first phase of a consolidation together by next year.
"We can't keep raising taxes," Jacobson said. "Taxpayers won't stand for it. But they still want the same level of service."
She said that the answer is to consolidate - - not just dispatch centers, but other services as well.
Jacobson said the plan in Racine County is to expand the City of Racine's current center and consolidate its services with those of Mount Pleasant, Caledonia, and the county. The county would run the system.
Jacobson said she hopes in time the consolidation will involve all communities.
In Waukesha County, several officials are not convinced the cost savings exist for their particular municipalities.
Brookfield Mayor Kathryn Bloomberg and Waukesha Mayor Carol Lombardi said at a recent meeting of municipal leaders that to sell the idea to their respective common councils they would have to be able to show them the cost savings.
Finley admitted, "We can't claim that yet. . . . We don't know who's in and who's out."
A buy-in by Brookfield and Waukesha is "pivotal" to a successful consolidation in Waukesha County, Finley said.
"Without their volumes and their economies of scale, it would be hard to do," he said.
Under Waukesha County's current proposal, a new facility would be built at the Waukesha County Technical College campus in the village of Pewaukee. Every municipality would have a representative on the center's board.
"Our governance model gives full local control," Finley said.
Landin, Finley's chief of staff, said the next step will be a meeting of officials from communities that already have dispatch centers to further discuss the project.
In addition to the Lake Area Communications System, communities that already have dispatch centers are the cities of Brookfield, Muskego, New Berlin, Oconomowoc and Waukesha, and the villages of Elm Grove, Menomonee Falls and Mukwonago.
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