Porterdale: Officials mull 911 contract

PORTERDALE - The City Council plans to have its attorney provide a thorough review of a proposed contract for 911 dispatch services at its retreat today. The contract, which extends for five years, would require Porterdale to pay $46,000 this year for its percentage of police calls that are dispatched through the Covington-Newton County 911 Center.

The council was scheduled to meet at the American Legion Hall on Legion Drive in Covington beginning at 9 a.m. In addition to discussing the 911 contract, Mayor Bobby Hamby said he hopes the retreat will allow the council to set priorities for the current year and a timeline for them to be accomplished.

The 911 contract has become a contentious issue since Covington-Newton County 911 requested earlier this year that Porterdale and Oxford each pay their proportional share of the cost of police calls dispatched through the 911 Center. Oxford has signed the contract, but Porterdale officials claim the cost would amount to taxation without representation and double taxation, among other grievances.

The Georgia Supreme Court found in favor of Gilmer County in a similar case in which the city of East Ellijay sued Gilmer County and the director of Gilmer County's emergency services seeking to require the county to provide non-emergency dispatching services at no charge. In that 2000 ruling, the high court found that the "county had no clear legal duty to continue providing free non-emergency services, and thus, (the) city was not entitled to mandamus relief on that basis."

The court also ruled that the "county's termination of free non-emergency dispatching services to (the) city was neither arbitrary nor capricious, and thus, (the) city was not entitled to mandamus relief on that basis."

The dispute between East Ellijay and Gilmer County came in 1999 after the county completed a costly upgrade to its 911 dispatching service and then required East Ellijay to pay its proportional share of the cost of non-emergency dispatch calls. The county had previously provided that service at no charge. The city refused to pay, and in August 1999 the county stopped providing non-emergency dispatching services for East Ellijay's police department. East Ellijay sued in Gilmer County Superior Court and won; however, that ruling was overturned by unanimous decision on appeal to the Georgia Supreme Court.

Porterdale City Attorney Tim Chambers said Wednesday he is familiar with the Gilmer County case but declined to discuss how he will advise the council on Saturday.

Mike Smith, director of Covington-Newton County 911 Center, said Thursday that he has informed council members of the Gilmer County case and advised them he used the Gilmer County methodology in determining the contract charges for Porterdale and Oxford.

Smith said that if the council does not agree to the contract in the near future, the 911 Center will cease to dispatch Porterdale's non-emergency calls, such as running a car tag for a traffic stop. Smith explained that any 911 emergency calls that come into the 911 Center from Porterdale would be routed to wherever Porterdale officials decide, whether that is another phone number or a radio talk group.

"We will give them plenty of notice," Smith said. "We will still handle their 911 emergency calls and get them routed to where they need to be."

Smith said 911 centers throughout the state are facing similar situations.

"This same issue is going on in other counties," he said. "We are not the only ones doing this. It is going on pretty much everywhere."

The 911 Center is funded by the city of Covington and Newton County. Smith said in January that the center has been shouldering the dispatch call expense for Porterdale and Oxford for years and could no longer afford to do so. Oxford's City Council has agreed to pay $18,282 for the fiscal year beginning July 1, which is its share of the cost of operating the 911 Center based on call volume. Oxford generates about 1.5 to 2 percent of total call volume, Smith said. Porterdale generates about 4 percent of total calls dispatched through the center, which would amount to about $46,000 in 2009.

The annual budget for the 911 Center is about $2.3 million, with $1.2 million coming in through surcharges, leaving about $1.1 million to be paid by the agencies that use the center's dispatch services. Smith said earlier that the surcharges, by law, cannot be used to pay for non-emergency dispatch.

Mansfield and Newborn police and fire protection are already handled by the county, so they are not being asked to contribute.

Hamby said last month that Porterdale does not have the revenue to cover the contract costs for 2009.

"Basically, we don't have the $46,000, and we'd have to raise taxes to do it," he said.

Councilman Robert Foxworth estimated in March that it would cost the town $250,000 to $300,000 in first-year start-up costs for Porterdale to handle its own non-emergency dispatching.

Staff reporter Crystal Tatum contributed to this report.

Alice Queen can be reached at alice.queen@newtoncitizen.com.