Council spikes merging dispatch

Like Buffy the Vampire Slayer rooting out the living dead, the Homer City Council at its Monday meeting put a stake in the heart of the idea of consolidating 911 dispatch service.

In two separate actions Monday night, Mayor Bryan Zak broke 3-3 tie votes to stop for now consideration of moving 911 dispatch from the Homer Police Department to the Kenai Peninsula Borough’s dispatch center in Soldotna.

On a motion for reconsideration by council member Donna Aderhold, the council first took a second look at Resolution 16-111(A) that directed City Manager Katie Koester to reject 911 consolidation. That resolution passed 4-3 at the Oct. 24 meeting, again with Zak breaking a tie, but Aderhold asked to bring it back up because she said she didn’t have enough information to make a decision.

At Monday’s meeting, Aderhold said she learned that if 911 dispatch went to Soldotna, there would be no redundancy in Homer.

“If you go with consolidation and there were some reason we got cut off from Soldotna, we have nothing here,” she said “That was key information to me that changed my mind.”

On the motion to reconsider Resolution 16-111(A), the motion failed, with council members Heath Smith, Tom Stroozas and Shelly Erickson voting yes and David Lewis, Catriona Reynolds and Aderhold voting no. Zak joined the no votes to break the tie.

Smith has been the main backer of considering 911 consolidation. He introduced another bite at the apple, Resolution 16-123, to direct the city manager “to fully explore the proposal to consolidate 911 dispatch services.” Smith said 911 consolidation would save the city money it could use to fill other
unfunded positions in city government. Expanding on that point, Stroozas said that when a new police station were to be built, not having to build a Homer dispatch center would lower construction costs.

Several city employees have testified against 911 consolidation. At the October meeting, dispatcher Janie Probst said taking away 911 service from Homer would be a disservice to the community. On Monday, another HPD employee, Sgt. Ryan Browning, spoke against the idea.

A 16-year law enforcement officer who started with the Alaska State Troopers, Browning said when he joined HPD he found response time was much faster. With dispatchers in the same building, officers can hear 911 calls come in and be responding while the dispatcher is still on the call.

“In Homer, more often than not we’re responding in real time,” Browning said. “In our line of work, time and information is critical. Responding to an emergency call is second to none.”

Deputy city clerk Melissa Jacobsen also spoke against 911 consolidation. She mentioned an incident during the election when a guy fell asleep in the city hall lobby and medics and police responded within minutes.

“There doesn’t seem to be any compelling argument to consolidating dispatch,” Jacobsen said. “Please recognize what an asset we have.”

Lewis cited employee morale as why he did not support 911 consolidation.

“It’s going to cause consternation in the dispatch department,” he said. “I would still much rather have dispatchers here. If you want to cut down the cost of the public safety building, get rid of the shooting range.”

Smith emphasized that by looking at 911 consolidation he wasn’t in opposition to any one department.

“I’m a member of the community. I hope I’m never going to advocate something that’s going to bring ill,” he said.

Rather, Smith said he wanted a full investigation of 911 consolidation to see if it would work. His resolution would not have been a final decision.

“We’re asking the city manager to fully explore all the pros and cons to consolidate so we an make the best decision for our community,” Stroozas said, echoing that point.

Smith’s resolution failed, though, with he, Stroozas and Erickson voting again to move the idea forward, and Lewis, Reynolds, Aderhold and Zak voting to stop the idea.

“To put any questionable doubts to those employees right now would not be a good thing,” Zak said in explaining his vote.

Koester did point out one problem with local 911 dispatch service: a redundancy thought to exist no longer works. In a memo, HPD Chief Mark Robl said that 911 calls from Homer first loop through to the Soldotna dispatch center. If that telephone pathway fails, the calls go to Homer dispatch. A memo from the borough contradicted that, saying that if the loop failed, calls wouldn’t go to Homer. In response to a question raised by the Homer News that pointed out those contradicting memos, Robl said he and Koester researched that issue and found out that redundancy no longer existed.

“When the first enhanced 911 system was installed on the peninsula, it was configured with a failsafe in it so the calls would come to us directly if the Soldotna line went down,” Robl wrote in an email last Friday. “I checked with ACS this morning and found out that sometime since then it was changed to the configuration as described by the borough. I was never notified of the change.”

In other council action, the council supported a resolution introduced by Lewis supporting the Standing Rock Lakota Tribe and opposing the Dakota Access Pipeline. He, Aderhold and Reynolds voted yes, and Smith, Stroozas and Erickson voted no. Zak broke the tie and also voted yes.

The council also defeated on introduction an ordinance proposed by Zak that would allow the mayor to vote in order to break a tie if the mayor attended meetings telephonically. Current city code allows the mayor to attend by phone meetings, with the mayor pro tem — currently, Reynolds — running the meeting. The mayor cannot vote, however. Zak’s ordinance died for lack of a second.

Michael Armstrong can be reached at