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Cencom cuts irk local agencies
Kitsap Countys proposed budget cuts have aroused the ire of several non-county agencies who see themselves being unfairly impacted by the county plan.
In a letter to Cencom director Ron McAffee, the county last week announced its intentions to include Cencom in the planned cutbacks, which call for a 10 percent reduction of costs in 2003 and an additional 5 percent reduction in 2004.
Cencom, Kitsap Countys only 911 dispatch center, is not a county department. Its budget is funded by every agency which uses it, with individual costs reflecting annual call volumes. Both Fire District 7 and Port Orchard Police, which pay between $100,000 and $300,000 a year to Cencom, are worried the countys demands are going to imperil Cencom service for everyone by reducing staffing and operating funds across the board.
Essentially, other agencies feel the county is simply refusing to pay 10 percent of its bill next year, putting the other participants in an awkward position.
You cant discriminate calls coming into an agency, said Rick Metzger, the chair of Fire District 7s board of commissioners. Youre either in or youre out.
The district expressed resentment of the countys apparent belief it could reduce its payments to Cencom without affecting others. The district officials were also worried about where the inevitable cuts would be made. According to McAffee, 80 percent of Cencoms $3.9 million annual budget is staff only 20 percent goes to operating costs.
Fire Chief Mike Brown pointed out the only way to make cuts to staff is to either fire someone or reduce the number of hours people work. Cencom is staffed 24 hours a day and employs 53 individuals, the majority of whom are dispatchers.
What two hours of a 24-hour day do you not want a dispatcher? Brown asked hypothetically. Thats how bad its going to get.
McAffee said he could not predict where the cuts would be made, but said Cencom would go to any lengths to avoid cutting staff.
Well do our part and do our darndest to cut money without cutting service, he said. But it would be difficult to do because we are already so tightly budgeted.
Port Orchard Police Chief Al Townsend agreed with McAffees budget assessment.
More than 13,500 Port Orchard Police calls a record number were routed through Cencom in 2001, and Townsend expects this years volume to exceed that. He said the departments call volume is already 15 percent higher than its volume this time last year.
Townsend said he would already like to see more call-takers at Cencom and believes additional staff could become necessary if call volumes continue to rise.
I dont think theyre exactly overstaffed by any stretch, he said.
Nobody is about to break off their participation in Cencom, however. The fire district estimates it would cost $1.5 million to handle its own dispatch, even under a bare-bones operation. Last year the district, which has the highest call volumes of any fire district in the county, paid around $300,000 to Cencom.
The Port Orchard Police Department, which has an average call volume compared to the rest of the county agencies, paid $101,900 last year.
For us, we dont have a choice, Townsend said. Its clearly a lot cheaper and easier to pay Cencom to (dispatch). Were basically prepared to pay for it forever.
He added: The countys issues with their money shouldnt affect the services were getting.
The fire district officials see an easy solution to the looming cuts simply pay extra to cover what the county cant. In fact, several of the districts commissioners felt the county was asking them to do just that by including Cencom in the cuts. A few felt the county was taking this tack because theres no motivation for them to do anything else.
The district commissioners did not appear willing to take the chance of making service and response times dependent on county finances.
Its always been a frustrating experience to maintain quality communications under this process, Brown said. It doesnt make any sense.