The fight to save Seaford’s 911 emergency dispatch center lives on.
Following a public hearing Tuesday night, held at the Seaford Fire Hall and at which more than a dozen people spoke, the city council voted to table a proposal to transfer dispatch services to the county’s call center. Mayor David Genshaw will put together a committee to study the costs of the center and to try to find money to pay those costs.
The vote to form the committee was 4 to 1, with Councilman James King the lone outlier. Earlier, he had made a motion to table the proposal “until we can come back with facts.” That motion died when it didn’t receive a second.
“Shame on you all,” a member of the audience called out when King’s motion was met by his fellow councilmen with silence.
At issue is the cost of the center. In a presentation at the start of the hearing, city manager Charles Anderson said that the call center is costing the city more than $650,000 this year. It brings in revenue in the amount of $38,000, Seaford’s share of the 911 fees that are collected by Verizon.
Also this year, the budget was balanced only after $801,000 was transferred from the city’s savings accounts. “We are relying on money we have in the bank to balance our budgets,” Anderson said.
Anderson told the audience that what the call center does is redundant, that emergency services could be provided by Sussex County without problems. “The county has provided services to our city in the past and I don’t think that anyone in the community knew that that happened,” he said. “The city is providing a duplicate service. Changing over to the county would mean cost savings. There would be no change in service and public safety would not be affected.”
Councilman Dan Henderson said that in order to continue funding the call center, the city would have to raise property taxes from 34 cents per $100 of assessed value to 45 cents. On his house, for example, that would mean an annual bill that’s nearly $230 higher.
“That doesn’t sound like a lot to a person like me,” he said. “But it sure sounds like a lot to a single mother, or a widow, or anyone in the city who’s living in poverty.”
Even the city’s new revenues — a 3-percent lodging tax that will go into effect in January and fees the city is charging communication companies that rent antenna space on its water towers — won’t make up the difference, Henderson said. “We’re in a quandary. What do we do? We can’t continue the center without raising additional revenue, but on the other hand we have a family we want to protect.”
Councilman William Mulvaney said that he would like to see the call center remain open. A former justice of the peace, he said that dispatchers at the center “saved my butt more than a couple of times.”
The only fair way to raise additional money would be to up residents’ electric rates, or water and sewer rates, he said. Simply hiking property taxes wouldn’t be fair because renters in the city don’t pay property taxes.
“These costs have to be shared by everyone,” Mulvaney said. “But all I hear when I’m talking to citizens is, ‘My electric bill is too high.’ We can’t wave a magic wand. We can raise this money, but only if the citizens are willing to pay the price.”
Many people who spoke during the public hearing didn’t see the fight to save the center as simply a financial issue.
“I personally believe that people are more important than money,” former city manager Dolores Slatcher told the council. Keeping the center open is a matter of public safety as well as the safety of the city police officers and utility workers, she said.
Slatcher reminded the council that calls about downed power lines or ruptured water pipes that are made in the evening after city hall is closed come into the 911 call center. Dispatchers at the center then contact workers with the electric or water department, who go out to make repairs.
“It is always nice to know that the dispatchers have our backs,” Wayne Sears, a 24-year veteran of the public works department, said during the hearing. Often, if a repair is taking longer than expected, or if the weather is bad, a dispatcher will contact the utility workers to ensure that they are OK.
“They are there for us,” Sears said.
Slatcher also said that the loss of the center could affect economic development in the city. “Seaford will be seen as a city that can’t sustain its services,” she said.
Bill Bennett, a former mayor and now director of the city’s electric department, agreed with Slatcher and Sears that losing the center “would greatly affect the safety of utility workers.” He also wondered, if the city closes the center, what will be the next to go.
“You say that our call center is redundant,” he said. “But we are all redundant services.” Providing water to city residents, for example, could be handled by the private company Tidewater. Delmarva Power could provide electricity, the state could provide recreation programs and a private company could be hired to handle administrative work.
“Any one of us could be next,” Bennett said. “If this goes through, all of the city’s employees should be scared to death. I’ve always been proud to say that I live in Seaford. But if you vote to close this center down, I don’t know that I can still say that.”
“We need to find a way to fund our center,” business owner Bunnie Williams told the council. “I don’t want to see the 911 center go. And I don’t want to see the city contract. I want it to keep growing.”
Alan Cranston is the owner of the newly opened Every Fiber coffee shop in downtown Seaford. “In the city, you are big about community, and providing that personal touch,” he said. “We built this town on that, and we are revitalizing it on that. And our dispatch center does just that.”
Cranston told council members that he hasn’t seen any suggestions for raising the money needed to keep the center opened. “I haven’t seen any grand proposals about tax hikes, or fee hikes,” he said. “If it’s too much, it’s too much. But we need to see the options.”
And he argued that, while having a local call center may only mean a difference of seconds in emergency response time, those seconds matter when lives are at stake. “Will one second, one minute, two minutes mean anything?” he asked. “I wouldn’t make that call, knowing that it could make a difference.”
“Closing the center is taking away an insurance policy,” former paramedic and fire department volunteer Bobby Reese said. “I’ve dealt with dispatchers all over the state and there’s nothing like talking with the locals.”
Dispatch center director Anita Bell gave several examples of where having local dispatchers make a difference. In cases of fire, if the dispatcher sees that a city police officer is nearby, the dispatcher can alert the officer. “In some cases, the officer has put out the fire before the fire department even arrives,” Bell said.
A dispatcher who sends an ambulance to what she knows is a high-crime area can also send out a police officer, Bell said. The dispatchers monitor security cameras in city hall, parks and the city utility building. “And if there’s a bad storm, we call utility workers to make sure they are OK,” Bell said. “That is the kind of specialized care that occurs in Seaford.”
City resident Dan Cannon wondered if the 911 center is the right place for the city to cut costs. “I would suggest other alternatives, like the golf course, or the swimming pool,” he said. “We need to explore other cost reductions or the possibility of state or federal money that will help us keep the 911 center.”
Former police chief Rob Kracyla and current police chief Marshall Craft both spoke in favor of keeping the 911 center. “You have here what I want in my town,” said Kracyla, who is police chief in Middletown, where emergency calls are handled by New Castle County. “Having that dedicated personnel is invaluable, in my book. Can you save money by cutting the center? Of course you can. But is it worth people’s safety?”
Craft, who started as chief in April, said that this was not something that he expected to see happen. “No one can beat the service that our center provides,” he said. “Our workers go above and beyond normal dispatch.”
Debbie Hall, who operates a day-care center in downtown Seaford, said that she has called 911 several times, “when there are gunshots, when I see criminal activity, anytime I felt my kids were in danger.”
Hall added that there are some things in life that aren’t simply matters of dollars and cents.
“I don’t like taxes,” she said. “But you can raise my taxes for this and I won’t mind one bit.”