Stanislaus Regional 911 has always been an unhappy partnership for Modesto, county

kcarlson@modbee.comMay 20, 2014 

A consultant’s study released two weeks ago aired Modesto’s concerns with the Stanislaus Regional 911 dispatch center and concluded the city should look at other options for police dispatch service.

It’s clear that Modesto and its Police Department never have been happy with the joint powers authority. In late 1998, former City Attorney Michael Milich advised Modesto not to enter the JPA with the county, warning that the governance structure was flawed, the county was satisfied with older equipment and the Police Department had no power to set policy for running the dispatch center.

Jeanne Hardin, the county’s director of the dispatch center from 1998 to 2004, strongly disagreed with the Jackman Associates report released this month but vouched for its description of hostility and distrust between the players in Stanislaus Regional 911.

Hardin said Modesto police management was “impossible to work with” and her six years as director were miserable.

As an example, Hardin said, former Modesto Police Chief Roy Wasden arrived late for a budget meeting in 2004, and she told him how late he was – 30 minutes. When Wasden looked at the budget numbers, she said, he threw the papers in the air and exclaimed: “I’m not approving this.”

Hardin said she went to pour a cup of coffee to calm down. She claimed that Wasden then remarked: “You don’t need coffee, you need Ritalin.”

Hardin said: “When I was having problems with Roy Wasden, (former county CEO) Reagan Wilson told me the city wanted me out so they could run the ‘com’ center, and they were going to make life miserable for me.”

The Police Department wanted the center to have top-of-the-line communications equipment and also made frequent requests for dispatch records and other reports, which were provided, said Hardin, who retired in early 2005.

Asked about Hardin’s story about the meeting, which she previously shared in a 2006 letter to the editor of The Bee, Wasden – now city manager of Turlock – said this week: “I don’t know what she is talking about.”

Hardin criticized the Jackman Associates study for citing problems with the dispatch center that occurred when a Modesto police captain was the center’s director before giving way to sheriff’s Lt. Mike Parker in June.

Despite years of discord, the joint powers authority was renewed for an additional 10 years in 2009. But Modesto leaders seem intent on leaving Stanislaus Regional 911 and plan to look at other opportunities.

Modesto Councilman Dave Lopez said former Police Chiefs Wasden and Mike Harden had concerns with the dispatch center before Police Chief Galen Carroll inherited the job last year. Carroll has the same complaints about inadequate staffing, overbilling, lack of transparency and a governing board heavily influenced by the county. He hired a former colleague from Long Beach, Tim Jackman, to prepare the study for a cost not to exceed $49,000.

The city believes the dispatch services cost more than necessary, and it has no ability to control its share of costs for operating the center. The bill for police and fire dispatching was $3.8 million in the 2012-13 fiscal year.

“We are looking (at other options) to make sure we’re not spending more and more of the taxpayers’ money than we need to,” Lopez said. “Our public safety departments are responding to the calls, and it stands to reason they would want to have more control over how the 911 system is run.”

In a key operational problem, the dispatch center needs more call takers so communications with officers in the field are not interrupted while dispatchers answer the next 911 call. Hiring more personnel would push the city’s costs higher. An old formula requires Modesto to cover 53 percent of the center’s annual costs based on its population.

Stanislaus Regional 911 dispatches for all police and fire agencies in the county except for Ceres, Oakdale and Turlock. Modesto needs to give three years’ notice if it is going to leave the JPA in 2019.

Modesto could look at running its own dispatch center or explore a partnership with Turlock and Ceres.

Turlock opened a new public safety center in the fall, with a 180-foot-high radio tower for dispatch and emergency services and plenty of space for growth. “I think anything is possible, but I don’t think anything is formally in the works at this point,” Wasden said. “The discussion is between the county and city of Modesto.”

Carroll said a police captain has had informal conversations with Turlock staff. After the dust settles, Carroll said, he hopes to set up a meeting with the county to talk about solutions.

Sheriff Adam Christianson said he disagreed with the Jackman Associates study’s conclusions but said there’s an opportunity to look for greater efficiencies in operating the 911 center.

“The staff and management of SR911 are doing a great job under extraordinary circumstances,” Christianson said. “My job is not to criticize the police chief but to make sure we are working together. His concern is the center is costing too much and is underfunded (by the county). Unfortunately for us, we have been in the middle of a fiscal crisis for 41/2 years.”

The regional dispatch center would require significant downsizing if Modesto were to leave the JPA. The Sheriff’s Department still would need dispatch for patrols and its public safety contracts with Hughson, Patterson, Riverbank and Waterford, as would member fire agencies. Christianson said Modesto would face serious startup costs in creating its own dispatch center.

Another question is dispatch for city fire service. With the breakup of Modesto Regional Fire Authority, Modesto, Salida and possibly other fire departments are working on automatic-aid agreements for responding to emergencies. A regional dispatch center would better serve that model for regional fire service, one official said.

“If at all possible, I think it should be regional,” said Mark Brubaker, a MRFA board member from Salida. “If a fire call came into (a Modesto dispatch center), the call would need to be transferred if Salida was the closest resource. It’s a done deal if it’s all under one roof.”

Bee staff writer Ken Carlson can be reached at kcarlson@modbee.com or (209) 578-2321.

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