By Chris Umscheid
North Liberty Leader
DES MOINES— Call it a good idea gone awry.
When the Johnson County Joint Emergency Communications Center (JECC) was conceived, the concept was simple: consolidate the various public safety (Fire, EMS and law enforcement) dispatchers in Johnson County in one combined dispatch center.
Since the center went online in 2010, the budget, set by the JECC Policy Board and accepted, not approved, by the board of supervisors, has continued to increase, much to the chagrin of supervisors and local legislators. Also, the center is looking yet again for an executive director with the resignation of Gary Albrecht, effective March 23.
No reason has been publicized for Albrecht’s departure after 15 months of service. Albrecht was the third director for the communications center. Associate director and IT manager Tom Jones is serving as the interim director.
Seeing a number of problems with the administrative structure of the JECC, and hoping to save other counties from a similar fate, State Representative Mary Mascher (D-77) has introduced a bill establishing a blueprint for counties and municipalities seeking to enter into 28E agreements to establish their own combined dispatch centers.
Mascher’s bill HF 2437, if enacted into law, would limit participation on a governance board to elected officials. Currently the JECC Policy Board is comprised of seven members: John Lundell (Coralville City Councilman), Tom Salm (Mayor of North Liberty), Tom Markus (City Manager, Iowa City), Susan Mims (Iowa City Mayor Pro Tem), Lonny Pulkrabek (Johnson County Sheriff), Janelle Rettig (Johnson County Supervisor) and Dave Wilson (Johnson County Emergency Management Agency Coordinator). Markus and Wilson are not elected officials.
“It is my belief that only elected officials should serve on the board,” Mascher said, “since those are the individuals on the ballot who have to answer to the people in their area.” Mascher said voters should have the ability to hold someone accountable for the taxing decisions made by the JECC Board. The representative sees non-elected officials as denying voters the ability to vote for or against them based on their decisions.
Mascher’s bill also states the governing body– for example the JECC Policy Board– shall not be the entity that certifies the center’s budget. The JECC Board determines its budget and then relies on the board of supervisors to come up with a levy to fund it. The supervisors can only accept the budget, and have no authority to reject it.
“This seems to take away the levying authority from the county supervisors,” said Mascher, saying she thinks the 28E agreement is flawed. “The levy is imposed on all county residents and the board of supervisors is ultimately responsible for that levy.” Mascher said the supervisors should have the final say on the dollar amount approved.
Mascher also wants to see more transparency in the budgeting process. “All cities in the county are responsible for knowing what is in the JECC budget, since all county voters are paying for the increased tax rate.” She said all cities have a responsibility to also approve the center’s budget, especially the cities that do not have a voting member on the board. “By requiring buy-in from the cities, the JECC Board is providing transparency to all voters,” said Mascher. The JECC board would also have to provide information to the cities to get support for their budget.
“The budget should be a transparent document and all voters should be aware of what their tax dollars are being used for.” Mascher said she wants to be sure cities are not transferring costs that were once in their budgets to the JECC. “I have also asked members of the JECC board to include a line on our property tax statements that indicates what the levy rate is for the JECC, and a link that will allow tax payers to go to the (JECC) website to examine the budget and what it is being used for.”
Mascher added she feels if the 28E were up for consideration today– based not only on her concerns and those of fellow area legislators, but also concerns from supervisors– that it would not pass in its current form.
The bill states each public agency involved with the center through the 28E agreement would be required to approve the proposed budget by resolution.
Mascher also would like to see the 28E agreement up for reconsideration every 15 to 20 years, rather than be a permanent agreement. “This would force the cities and county to have a discussion about the agreement and whether it needs to be changed or improved in any way,” said Mascher.
While Mascher hopes the JECC Board would adopt the changes outlined in her bill, it does not apply to currently operating centers. “It would only affect counties that would be entering into a 28E agreement in the future.” Mascher said she wants such contracts and joint communication centers to be successful, but fears without the changes she proposes we could risk the failure of this system.
So far, only Johnson and Scott counties have such joint dispatch centers. Mascher said other counties have discussed the possibility, but none have moved in that direction.
The bill was introduced on Tuesday, March 13, read for the first time and referred to the committee on local government.
“I want this to work. My fear is other counties will avoid this type of arrangement when they see the escalating costs. We should be the model for how to do it right.”