Officer: Chester County 911 centers could cost taxpayers millions

jmcfadden@heraldonline.comJanuary 10, 2014 

— The public price tag for two 911 centers in Chester County continues to climb, a Sheriff’s Office captain said in court on Friday, as deputies claim residents could pay more than $3 million in the first year if a judge rules in the county’s favor in a battle over who should control the 911 department.

Taxpayers might be faced with a nearly $3.1 million bill within the first year of financing two dispatch centers – one run by the county and one run by Sheriff Alex Underwood, who has indicated that he plans to still dispatch his deputies even if the county reclaims 911. In subsequent years, taxpayers might pay more than $2 million in yearly recurring costs for duplicating services and equipment at both centers, said Capt. Doug McMurray, who is responsible for overseeing the sheriff’s office’s information technology.

Those costs include $987,000 to set up a new dispatch center, $135,000 for yearly maintenance to both facilities,salaries for dispatchers and more than $98,000 to move existing 911 equipment at the Sheriff’s Office into a refurbished facility at the Ella Street armory, where 911 was once housed.

Jon Robinson, one of two private attorneys hired by the county to represent it in its dispute against Sheriff Underwood, disputed the validity of McMurray’s figures, questioning his qualifications and calling his estimates for vendor costs hearsay.

But Judge Knox McMahon of Lexington allowed McMurray’s testimony. He also permitted testimony from Virginia Sloan, the county’s 911 director, who insisted that moving 911 from its current headquarters at the Dawson Drive law enforcement complex to the Ella Street armory will cost taxpayers less than $20,000 after the state budget and control board reimburses the county. She said there will be an additional $300,000 cost to taxpayers to cover dispatchers, but only if the sheriff agrees to cooperate with county leaders.

“It’s possible my ideas and Doug’s ideas are different, so there’s going to be a cost difference,” she said.

Underwood fired Sloan in November after learning that she sent an unauthorized email to several county employees regarding changes to a policy involving the coroner. Underwood testified on Friday that he never set such a policy. Among other reasons for Sloan’s termination, state sheriff’s association attorney Sandra Senn cited in court Friday, are claims that she was spotted moving furniture while on medical leave for back surgery, and spent time helping the county refurbish the armory.

Sloan’s email prompted a “body slamming” letter from Britt Lineberger, the county’s EMS and IT director, who wrote to the coroner, solicitor, County Supervisor Carlisle Roddey and several others that the sheriff acted illegally and should not have any control over 911. Lineberger, it was learned on cross-examination from Senn, later led a vote among members of a medical response policy board to lobby against changes to 911.

The dispute between Underwood and the county began when the County Council voted without public notice in November, and then again last month, to transfer control of 911 dispatch service from the Sheriff’s Office to a county-controlled agency. Sennargues that county leaders have provided no clear reason for reclaiming 911 and are seeking to exert control over an elected official.

The County Council transferred control of 911 to the Sheriff’s Office in 2009, when Richard Smith was sheriff.

“I’m furious about it,” said Melba Carter, a Chester resident who sat in the courtroom for hours listening to testimony and taking notes. “That’s a lot of money.”

Nettie Archie, who hasn’t missed a day of court, said the amount of money spent on the dispute and the potential costs for taxpayers could be going to other things, such as education: “I don’t see the money being used wisely at this point in time,” she said.

After listening to nearly 11 hours of testimony from both sides, Judge McMahon said he will take all arguments under advisement before moving on with the case.

Jonathan McFadden •  803-329-4082

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