Published in the Pioneer Press

RAMSEY COUNTY - We're happy to report that St. Paul, Ramsey County and a number of suburbs are a step closer to an agreement on consolidating 911 emergency call services. The log that apparently broke the jam was the chart that accompanies this editorial, which was presented at a countywide meeting of elected officials a few weeks ago. Suburban mayors overwhelmingly supported the 40-60 plan for sharing costs of a consolidated center (each city's share would be determined 40 percent by tax base and 60 percent by call volume).

That compromise seems to answer the criticisms of previous consolidation proposals raised by some of the more vocal opponents. We've never endorsed a particular set of numbers. What we've consistently said is the St. Paul, county and the suburban communities should find a way to make this work because, as myriad communities around the country have shown -- including neighboring Dakota County -- there are savings to be had in consolidating 911 services. This is especially true with the new 800 MHz technology that not only improves communication among police, fire and rescue workers, but also brings a boatload of federal money to help pay for it.

Currently, there are four public safety answering points, or PSAPs, covering Ramsey County. St. Paul and Ramsey County each operate one, as do White Bear Lake and Maplewood. Those suburban communities that do not have their own call center contract with the county under a payment scheme that by anyone's measure has been generous.

According to Ramsey County Manager David Twa, about 57 percent of the costs for the county PSAP are paid for by taxpayers countywide, while the contract communities pay 43 percent of the total cost based on volume. And whether or not the county consolidates 911 services, Twa is going ahead with a $1.5 million 800 MHz system, the cost of which would be spread across the county tax base. The county also would renegotiate fees with the contract cities if consolidation fails.

Where this all got tricky was in places like Maplewood and White Bear Lake. We agree with Mark Sather, the city manager in White Bear Lake, who argued that under previous proposals a consolidated call center would cost his community more in the early years.

"Early years" is the key phrase. Sather's numbers are based upon what White Bear Lake would pay in the first few years of the consolidated plan and also on White Bear Lake not upgrading to an 800 MHz system.

The reason a 40-60 compromise was appealing to so many suburban mayors is because if the cost of a consolidated 911 center is divided up by tax base alone, there is automatic disparity because the tax base and levies across Ramsey County vary so widely. The alternative -- to have the county initially pick up all the costs -- is also a nonstarter.

Given that conundrum, this 40-60 compromise seems reasonable. Even Sather agrees.

"The inequity is that the sheriff's department is only charging 43 percent of cost to their users," Sather said of the current system. And if a consolidated system is paid for entirely based upon the tax base, "we'll be paying a lot. That's why [the county] came back with the [call] volume proposal."

Some communities will pay more -- and others less -- in the early years of a new countywide 911 system. But over time, they will be able to adjust their tax levies and make the math work for local taxpayers. More important, a consolidated 911 center will be cheaper for all the residents of Ramsey County. And that's been the primary selling point for us all along.

We'd also be remiss if we didn't note the 40-60 plan also allays suburban concerns that they would get stuck with a larger chunk of the cost than St. Paul, which accounts for the lion's share of the volume of calls countywide. The 40-60 plan addresses that nicely.

In short, this is the best compromise we could have hoped for. The county is in agreement, the suburban mayors are in agreement, and we hope St. Paul will see the wisdom of it.

Consolidation Costs
Estimate of how the communities in Ramsey County would split up the almost $10 million in costs of a consolidated 911 center in the first year (includes a $1.5 million capital expense for system backbone). The costs are based 40 percent on tax base and 60 percent on call volume:
Arden Hills $184,708
Falcon Heights $61,627
Gem Lake $13,526
Lauderdale $29,111
Little Canada $166,713
Maplewood $770,080
Mounds View $171,608
New Brighton $341,091
North Oaks $151,112
North St. Paul $191,135
Roseville $728,315
St. Paul $5,925,635
Shoreview $420,185
Vadnais heights $212,606
White Bear Lake $424,714
White Bear Twp $178,591
total city cost $9,970,756

2006 St. Paul Pioneer Press and wire service sources. All Rights Reserved.