City Wants County to Take 911 Call Center

WHEELING – City taxpayers spent an additional $184,350 beyond the 911 fees included on their monthly phone bills to operate the Wheeling-Ohio County 911 Communications Center during the last year, according to financial reports.

Wheeling is now looking to shed that expense by asking Ohio County to assume responsibility for the center – the only municipally operated 911 center in the state – by Jan. 1, City Manager Robert Herron told council members last week. County commissioners have yet to receive a formal request for the change, however, and they said there are issues to be ironed out before such a change could take place.

During the 2012-13 fiscal year, which ended June 30, Wheeling spent $684,350 on the 911 center, which dispatches for every county agency including volunteer fire departments and the Ohio County Sheriff’s Department. The county reimbursed $500,000 of that out of the $1.1 million in 911 fees it collected during the year, leaving $184,350 to be covered by Wheeling’s general fund.

Ohio County Commissioner Tim McCormick said all the money the county collects from 911 fees goes toward emergency communication. What’s not spent to reimburse the city goes toward equipment, he said.

McCormick said commissioners offered to assume control of the center about five years ago, but Wheeling officials were concerned the county would cut staff and “adamantly opposed” the idea.

“They felt we would not take their dispatchers. … We assured them that wouldn’t happen … ,” McCormick said. “I’m not against taking it, but there are questions to be answered.”

“All I’m going to say about that is I disagree with that statement,” Herron said Friday.

McCormick’s questions include what impact adding the 911 Center’s 14 full-time and five part-time employees would have on the county’s budget. The cost to provide benefits also would increase, as Ohio County pays 100 percent of its employees’ health insurance costs, while Wheeling covers 80 percent.

Commissioner Randy Wharton believes county officials would “look favorably” on the request, if the city makes it. He said it’s probably unfair to ask Herron to supervise a department that’s responsible for all of Ohio County.

“He’s done a good job of it, but it’s probably a better county function,” Wharton said.

An ordinance would be required to relinquish authority over the center, Herron said. He expects to introduce that legislation to City Council sometime in the fall.

Theresa Russell, 911 Center director, said the issue of transferring to the county comes as no surprise. She noted the center has directed emergency calls for the entire county since her staff began dispatching for the sheriff’s department – the last agency to come on board – in 1998.

Russell said she has not discussed the matter with county officials, but she wouldn’t expect much to change except the signature on center employees’ paychecks.

“That all remains to be seen. It would be up to the county commissioners. … I’ve been told that nothing is going to change operationally,” Russell said.