LAURA YUEN, Pioneer Press
September 14, 2005

Plans for a consolidated Ramsey County emergency dispatch center took a big step forward Tuesday as the Board of Commissioners agreed on a new funding formula that appeared to satisfy many of the county's suburbs.

Commissioners hope the move will cap more than a year of serious, and often contentious, deliberations that most recently came down to who will pay and how much.

In a couple of breakthrough meetings last week with County Manager David Twa, several city mayors and administrators said they were willing to settle on a center to be financed by a combination of county property taxes and a fee based on each city's call volume.

That's not to say all of the cities are exuberant, commissioners conceded. The key word is "acceptable," said board chairwoman Victoria Reinhardt. "I didn't force anyone to say they liked it."

The board unanimously decided to move forward with a formal joint-powers contract with the cities to merge services -- which include radio communications for police, fire and medical emergency -- and to assist St. Paul in securing a site for the new center near the city's police headquarters and the county's Law Enforcement Center near downtown on the East Side.

If the city rebuffs the merger, the county would proceed with alternative sites, such as the second floor of the Law Enforcement Center.

How St. Paul will respond to the newest plan, however, remains to be seen. In July, the City Council approved a different arrangement that would gradually shift the entire operating cost to the county after seven years. Suburbs cried foul over that plan, pointing out that 70 percent of the county's call volume comes from St. Paul.

Under the new compromise, a countywide property tax levy would pay for 60 percent of the funding for the 911 center. Cities would foot the rest of the costs, depending on each community's call volume.

"While it does provide savings to St. Paul much earlier -- significant savings earlier -- it never gets to the point where it's totally assumed by the countywide taxpayers," said Deputy Mayor Dennis Flaherty. Still, Flaherty said the city will seriously consider the county's proposal, given that Mayor Randy Kelly and a number of City Council members generally support streamlining services.

In a surprising twist, a torn St. Paul Commissioner Janice Rettman, who had publicly voiced concerns about the merger, cast her vote for the new plan, noting "the greater good" of a merged center. The proposal also comes at the same time that Ramsey County is preparing to upgrade to a state-of-the-art 800-megahertz radio system.

The latest compromise is "a much better funding formula, much more equitable, much more reasonable," said Falcon Heights Mayor Susan Gehrz.

In fact, Gehrz noted, it's similar to the funding formula currently applied to the host of cities that rely on the county sheriff's office for 911 needs. (Only St. Paul, Maplewood and White Bear Lake operate their own dispatch centers.)

A handful of officials contacted by the Pioneer Press, including Gehrz, White Bear Lake City Manager Mark Sather, Maplewood Mayor Robert Cardinal and Shoreview Mayor Sandy Martin, said their city councils likely would support the latest plan. A newly constructed center could be completed as early as October 2007.

"I think there's some unity now," said Cardinal, who had earlier criticized the county for asking his city to approve the idea without clearing up some basic funding questions. Only in recent weeks, Cardinal said, has the county provided Maplewood officials with cost scenarios.

"Everybody else seemed to want to jam this down a couple cities' throats, meaning Maplewood and White Bear," Cardinal said. "Now it's out in the open, there's enough of a consensus and all the communities are participating. And that's a good thing."

The county board voted to review the joint-power agreements with the cities on or before Oct. 18.

Laura Yuen can be reached at or 651-228-5498.

2005 St. Paul Pioneer Press and wire service sources. All Rights Reserved.