Cencom cuts irk local agencies

Kitsap County’s 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.

The problem?

Cencom, Kitsap County’s 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 county’s 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 can’t discriminate calls coming into an agency,” said Rick Metzger, the chair of Fire District 7’s board of commissioners. “You’re either in or you’re out.”

The district expressed resentment of the county’s 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 Cencom’s $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. “That’s how bad it’s 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.

“We’ll 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 McAffee’s budget assessment.

More than 13,500 Port Orchard Police calls — a record number — were routed through Cencom in 2001, and Townsend expects this year’s volume to exceed that. He said the department’s 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 don’t think they’re 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 don’t have a choice,” Townsend said. “It’s clearly a lot cheaper and easier to pay Cencom to (dispatch). We’re basically prepared to pay for it forever.”

He added: “The county’s issues with their money shouldn’t affect the services we’re getting.”

The fire district officials see an easy solution to the looming cuts — simply pay extra to cover what the county can’t. In fact, several of the district’s 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 “there’s 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.

“It’s always been a frustrating experience to maintain quality communications under this process,” Brown said. “It doesn’t make any sense.”

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