EATON — Preble County Commissioners approved a combined emergency dispatch service agreement with the City of Eaton in a 2-1 vote during a meeting on Wednesday, Dec. 6.
Commissioner Denise Robertson was the lone “no” vote, and several city and county residents alike attended the meeting to share their opinions on the agreement.
While many are in support of the merger, some residents did not like the way it had been handled and thought the commissioners could have been more transparent.
Beth Cox was the first resident to speak during public comments.
“This whole dispatch merger reminds me of what is happening right now. We have a federal investigation on Russian collusion that originated from the infamous Russian dossier that has since been proven to be made up and proven false, but here we are on a trajectory with this investigation that was a complete waste time and tax payer money,” Cox said.
“Now the merger is not as serious as this, I admit, but let’s be sure we aren’t following the same pattern and rushing into something that may be unnecessary.”
She then asked four questions she hoped the commissioners could answer for her.
The first question asked if the dispatch merger stemmed out of a belief the state was mandating a change? The second, will the merger be efficient? How will it provide better services for the County tax payers? The third, since Eaton will be paying into the service for only three years — how will that portion be paid for at the end of the three years? Can they guarantee that there will not be a need for a levy at that point? Finally, the fourth question asked why the commissioners did not hold any public hearings on the merger.
Next Terry Willis took the podium. He said, “I just want to thank the commissioners for taking this 9-1-1 burden off of our hands at the City of Eaton. With all this new-found wealth I’m sure they’ll be willing to give the money back to us — oh no they won’t, will they? They’ll probably spend that money on something else, won’t they? You all will come back to us with a levy and say that you need money for the dispatch. I appreciate your effort, thank you.”
“I want to know what is in it for the City of Eaton, other than losing a huge expense and putting it on the backs of every property owner in Preble County, so that their burden is transferred to the county?” William York III asked.
“It would make more sense to operate two different dispatch places, in case one were to be damaged or destroyed by a natural disaster. Instead of putting all your eggs in one basket, while the City of Eaton gets a free ride. If the City of Eaton wants to now, until the end of time, pay for their share of the dispatch expenses, that is fine — that is what they should do.
“Again, I want to know why the City of Eaton wants a free ride and to put all that burden on Preble County?”
“Guys, I want to echo what Beth [Cox] said. There should have been more public meetings. I checked the agendas and read [Commissioner Rodney Creech’s] comments on Facebook,” Jeff Golden said. “The question was asked where did the City of Eaton get this from? In 2015, Creech based it on a mandate and there was no mandate. He’s told us that it is coming down the line, but we are two-and-a-half years down the line and we have seen no mandate.
“Has that changed? Is there a date?”
Creech answered, “From my understanding it is 20 years. I did not make it up, Jeff. I wish I did.”
Golden reiterated that Creech brought this issue up in 2015 and based his reasoning on a mandate. Golden then brought up meeting minutes from an August commission meeting and said he took offense to Creech’s tone when he referred to people in the county as “uneducated” on the matter.
“As today, there are a lot of people who show up who do not have all the information,” Creech explained.
Nathan Hake took the podium and asked the commissioners how they previously announced public meetings on the dispatch merger. He asked if they had requested public opinions. Commission President Chris Day responded that the issue is discussed in the minutes and Creech added it had also been in the paper.
Hake then moved on to talk about the contract. Since the City of Eaton is only paying for three years, he asked if the contract was void after the third year or if it would continue after the three years. Day answered, once the county goes down this road the contract will go on with “perpetuity.”
Hake asked, “There is no opt-out clause, saying that you guys could walk out of this contract?”
“There is a portion of the contract that says we can opt-out if there is a hardship on the county,” Commissioner Denise Robertson answered.
“This county is heading for a tight budget already, without adding in $200,000 and possibly more,” Hake said. “I just don’t see the benefit to the county. I agree with the previous speakers. In today’s world, we live in a pretty dangerous world where crazy things happen. People walk into the Sheriff’s Department and shoot people. We had a guy walk in six or eight months ago who shot himself. Who is to say someone won’t walk into the dispatch center?
“I think it is causing more of a safety issue. The mandate you guys are talking of doesn’t apply to small counties. It more applies to larger counties like Montgomery or Hamilton County. When you have two dispatches it is not slowing things down — that is safety. I don’t think the Federal Government puts all their troops in one place.
“Has this contract been shared with the public at all? Do you have a copy of it here, we can all see?”
Robertson answered, “Unless there has been a public records request, there has been no eyes on this contract.”
“Lets keep in mind that Eaton is in Preble County,” Creech said. “I keep hearing the city and the county. You can request the contract and you can come in here against it, but for the last three years for every person who is in here I have talked to probably 50 to 100 people who are for this.
“So, I appreciate that you are against this. When I ran for this job I was told I wouldn’t make everybody happy. Here you are. We have tried to cross paths several times to go over numbers. We have all the data and information. The sheriff and chief are behind us. This makes sense. You can come in here and tell us that we are idiots and that is okay. I have all the information and I can tell you that Mr. Golden does not have all the information. I am an open book.”
“I think there should have been open meetings with their board and us here,” Robertson said. “We should not be the keepers of this information. Everyone in this room should know this information.”
“If you had public meetings, you could have avoided a lot of this,” Golden added.
“It is on your agenda to vote. Can you table this and distribute the information to the public?” Hake asked.
“We have to vote,” Creech answered. “We’ve already waited too long.”
Golden reiterated, he believed the issue should have been posted on the agenda so the public could have come into the meetings to discuss.
Later in the meeting, the topic came up again when it was time to vote on the contract.
“If this were a true partnership I would fully support this contract,” Commissioner Robertson said. “But since the intent of everybody involved is to move the burden of the city dispatch to the county budget in three years, I cannot support it. I’m perplexed as to why we would put the County in harm’s way fiscally by agreeing to take on the city’s obligation for non-emergency dispatch for free.
“We have never dispatched for them and their size and tax base justifies the separation. As they grow, their tax base will continue to grow — which is a great thing — but our expense with the dispatch will also continue to grow and put us further down the path of draining the county’s general fund.”
Creech responded, “I have been consistent since day one. The City of Eaton is in Preble County and I appreciate those who pay their taxes just as much as I do those who pay their taxes in Preble County. I have said that since day one and I still stand behind it. Why should a person who lives in the City of Eaton be penalized because they live in the City of Eaton? Why should they pay more than I do?
“I’ve met with other counties that want to do this, but their relationship between the city and county is so poor — Greenville, being one of them. They want to do it, but they don’t get along. I’m proud to be from a community that does get along. I look forward to working with the city — teamwork makes it great work. We will accomplish a lot more together than we would ever accomplish alone.
”To me, I am proud to be a part of this,” Creech continued. “We have been trying to do this for years. I wish this was my idea, because it is a no-brainer. We will be taking two inefficient operations and combining them to create one that is actually going to get the job done.”
Day added, “We’ve been talking for more than two years about the mandate they are going to require. I don’t know when they will act on that, but they will at some point in time. When we first started looking at this, one of the big issues was the under-staffing of two dispatch centers. We knew then that our dispatch center was understaffed, along with the City of Eaton. We just don’t have the people. We knew that was an issue and we knew we would need to correct that at some point in time.”
He further explained, when they began to look at the issue they were looking at a capital cost of $3.1 million, but with change in cost and technology that has changed. The cost now has decreased to $6,000 to $7,000 in capital costs.
“We knew that as a county that we would have to move forward either way. We started looking at a plan to put this in place. Some of the monies in the plan is not only helping the city, but every other emergency unit in the county, upgrade,” Day said.
“We’ve tried to come up with a plan that covers everybody in the county and covers them efficiently.”
There was further public discussion before commissioners held their vote on the contract. Commissioners Day and Creech voted in favor, while Robertson remained in opposition.
Reach Kelsey Kimbler at 937-683-4061 or on Twitter @KKimbler_RH