News : Bethlehem Police Chief Addresses 911 Operations
Bethlehem, PA, USA, April 7, 2015 -- Bethlehem police Chief Mark DiLuzio told City Council on Tuesday it ultimately might cost the city more if it transfers its cash-strapped 911 operations to Northampton or Lehigh counties.
The city would still have to maintain a small dispatch center to handle fire and emergency medical service calls, monitor security cameras and answer non-emergency calls. Personnel would also have to provide criminal history checks, warrant service and communication among officers once they arrive on the scene.
Between salaries and equipment, DiLuzio said, the bill could total $2.7 million a year for the smaller call center. The city now subsidizes its 911 center with about $2.1 million, meaning it would have to pay about $600,000 more. It would not be able to tap surcharges, the small 911 fees tacked onto phone bills.
DiLuzio said removing 911 responsibilities from the city would have a far-reaching effect on how the city runs its public safety operation.
"Our 911 center is like an octopus. The head is here and the tentacles reach out to central booking and all the substations out there," he said. "So, whatever you do to the head of the beast is going to affect the tentacles."
DiLuzio conducted his own internal study as the city wrestles with how to fund its cash-strapped 911 system. Surcharges cover just $1.2 million of the city's $3.2 million-a-year operation.
Councilman Eric Evans called Bethlehem's operation "top shelf" and worth saving.
"The question is how do we keep it feasible financially so we can continue to offer the services we do," Evans said.
DiLuzio said the city is also looking at how to shrink its costs.
Last fall, Bethlehem, Allentown and Northampton County partnered to start accepting text messages. In June, DiLuzio said, the city wants to work with Northampton County and Allentown on sharing a 911 phone switch hookup, and, as part of a long-term project, it wants to work with Allentown on sharing radio systems.
"The more equipment we can share with others will cut overhead costs," DiLuzio said.
But the big financial question is whether the state will raise the surcharges, which haven't changed since 1990, when the $1 land-line fee was imposed, or since 2008, when the cellphone fee — $1.25 for Lehigh Valley residents — was added. That would partially plug the budget holes that Bethlehem and 68 other 911 centers have been experiencing in recent years.
State Rep. Steve Barrar, R-Delaware, has said he plans to introduce a bill this month with a compromise fee of $1.50. He said the proposal, which comes after more than a year of hearings, would provide the needed revenue. It also would encourage counties to consolidate resources to reduce operating costs.
The Pennsylvania Emergency Management Agency and the County Commissioners Association of Pennsylvania also have lobbied for changes. The Legislature last year opted to keep the current fees until June 30, forcing lawmakers to revisit the issue in the coming months.
While he said the goal is to keep the 911 center, Mayor Robert Donchez has convened a committee to review the pros and cons of Bethlehem's staying a city-operated center, merging with Northampton County, sharing software and equipment with Allentown or merging with Allentown.
Posted by Veronica Silva Cusi, news correspondent
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Published: Thursday, April 9, 2015