The April 8 article “City questions 911 fees” misquoted Porterdale Police Chief Wayne Digby. According to Digby, he was answering a question a city council member had at the April 6 meeting about the meaning of a 20 percent failure rate of the new OpenSky public safety radio network rather than describing what the PPD was experiencing. Digby said the department has experienced some minor problems with service that have been almost completely corrected by implementing new microphones and antennae. Covington-Newton 911 Communications Center Director Mike Smith assured The News that if the system was experiencing a 20 percent failure rate, the center would not be using the system. Smith also said Tyco Electronics, who is responsible for the installation and maintenance of the system, is well within their contract agreement of offering a 90 percent in-building coverage of the county. Tyco Site Manager Ryan Currie and Smith said the system is in its infancy and does come across some issues, which are immediately addressed, and that Tyco is dedicated to identifying and correcting any problem with the Newton project.. The Covington News strives to have its news reports be fair and accurate. It is our policy to promptly correct all factual mistakes. If you find an error, please report it to us by calling (770) 787-6397.
Members of the Porterdale City Council remain unhappy with the five-year intergovernmental agreement between the city of Covington and Newton County, which would require the town to pay $45,649 to the Covington-Newton County 911 Communications Center for dispatch services.
The amount asked is based on the fact that Porterdale generates roughly 4 percent of the calls coming into the center.
"It’s just a matter of economics," said Mike Smith, Covington-Newton County 911 Communications director. "We’re not punishing them in any way."
Porterdale Councilman Robert Foxworth said at a council meeting Monday that the residents already pay county taxes, fire taxes and 911 phone surcharges for the service.
"The amount they are asking is 4 percent of our yearly budget, and we’d have to raise millage rates by 2 mills in order to pay it," Foxworth said.
Smith said that 911 services are different from dispatch services, defined by the intergovernmental agreement signed by County Chairman Kathy Morgan and Covington Mayor Kim Carter in June 2008 as "all services provided after the answering and processing of a call for service via a phone or other telecommunications device that is received at the center."
Smith said the amount of 911 surcharges collected in a year is subtracted from the center’s total expenditures and then the percentage still owed by municipalities based on its call volume is determined. He added that the municipalities were informed around five years ago that this payment for services was a future possibility.
Oxford signed an agreement to provide dispatch services with the center in March. The cost of Oxford’s five-year agreement, which is based on the percentage call volume coming from the municipality from the previous fiscal year, totals $18,282. The amount can be paid monthly and call volumes will be reviewed annually.
"Their fee could very likely go down," Smith said, "and it could go up."
Foxworth wondered why Mansfield and Newborn were not being asked to fund dispatch services. Smith said the two towns do not receive emergency services and county fire and sheriff units respond to calls coming from those areas. Smith said if one of the towns were to start up their own police department, then they would fall under the agreement as Porterdale and Oxford do.
Several members of the Porterdale council expressed concern over the Newton 911 Center’s budget as compared to Rockdale County’s call center.
In 2008, Newton 911 answered 108,716 while Rockdale 911 answered 135,475 calls for service. This year Newton 911 has budgeted $1,037,198 for salaries, $180,000 of which is for overtime. Rockdale’s current budget shows $732,831 for salaries and $45,000 for overtime.
"We’re running a city on less than they’re running a 911 center on," Hamby said.
Both Smith and Julie Seng, Rockdale 911 deputy communications director, said that comparing their budgets is like comparing "apples to oranges." Smith said Rockdale dispatches to three public safety agencies while the Covington-Newton center dispatches to 11 — Covington Police, Georgia State Patrol, Animal Control, Newton County Sheriff’s Office, Oxford Police, Porterdale Police, a special investigations unit, Covington Fire, Newton County Fire, Oxford Fire and Newton EMS.
Councilmember Arline Chapman said the amount of overtime paid by the Newton center concerned her.
"I mean, this is a job that people should not be working 12 and 14 hours," Chapman said.
Smith said the dispatchers at his center do work 12 hour shifts, which they have voted on each year since 2002. He said the sheriff’s office and county fire have recently switched to the same scheduling system because of its efficiency.
Other 911 budget items worrying council members were contracted services (budgeted at $150,000 for Newton and $240,349 for Rockdale) and a $1,000 clothing budget. Smith said county and city department managers have clothing budgets separate from uniform budgets. Finally, Porterdale Police Chief Wayne Digby said the new OpenSky radio network implemented last year still has kinks to be worked out and that the radios have a 20 percent failure rate — meaning that 20 percent of the time the talk button is pushed, the person on the other side cannot hear what is said.
Porterdale Mayor Bobby Hamby said the city will be requesting a meeting with Morgan, Carter and Smith to clear up their unanswered questions.
"This time we are not going to ask for a meeting; we are going to demand it," Hamby said.
One question they would like answered is why if they pay into the center, they can not have representation on the center’s board of governors.
"If they want us to give money and they don’t want to hear from us," Chapman asked, "are we just supposed to swallow this?
"I think there is something very wrong with the way this is being run."
The intergovernmental agreement set up the board to consist of the sheriff, Covington chief of police, county fire chief, EMS director, Covington fire chief, an appointee of the county chairman, Covington city manager or other appointee of the mayor and the Emergency Management Agency director. The EMA director serves as the permanent co-chair and the other is appointed on a rotating basis among other members of the board.
In a response letter to Hamby, Carter and Morgan explained that in order to gain a spot on the board Porterdale would need to become an equal partner in the intergovernmental agreement.
"The city of Porterdale would need to agree to become responsible for one third, or approximately $333,333.33, of the Public Safety Answering Center’s budget. Upon completion of such action, the City of Porterdale would also be allowed a seat on the E911 Board of Governors," the letter reads.
"Did they not read the news about Gov. Blagojevich trying to sell seats," Chapman said referring to Illinois’ former governor trying to sell the vacant Senate seat left by President Barack Obama.
Smith said that he has given Porterdale City Manager Tom Fox everything he has asked for and invited council members to come to the center to have any of their questions answered.
"We’re trying to be as open and forthcoming as we can in this situation," Smith said.
He said no one from Porterdale has taken up his offer. Foxworth said he and Fox have attended a 911 board meeting.
"Obviously we can jump up and down over here until we’re blue in the face and they’re not going to want to listen to us," Chapman said, "so it would seem to me that we need to contact DCA [the Department of Community Affairs] and ask them to take a look at all this [budget] compared to what they’re doing in Rockdale."
Smith said the center is independently audited twice a year, once by the city and once by the county, and the findings are turned into the state. According to Smith, all the center’s audits have been clean.
In the letter Morgan and Carter sent to Hamby, they requested the city provide its answer about dispatch services by April 15. Smith said if Porterdale refuses the service, city residents will not lose 911 services. The center would merely set up a separate call group and forward calls received from Porterdale to whatever entity Porterdale designates as its dispatch facilitator.
Smith said this scenario is not uncommon in Georgia as Fulton County forwards any medical call to hospital EMS centers. He added that the Georgia Supreme Court has upheld a county’s right to charge municipalities for dispatch services in Grantsville v. Coweta County.
Hamby said they council would like to have Carter, Morgan and Smith answer their questions at the April 23 council work session.
"It’s a situation where our citizens are paying county taxes and 911 surcharges, but they’re being asked to pay more because they live in the city of Porterdale," Hamby said, "and we want to make absolutely certain they’re not paying more than they need to."