Seaford council delays vote on closing local 911 center

SEAFORD — A movement is underway to rescue Seaford 911 Center, the first 911 call center in Delaware that handled its first call 43 years ago, from proposed transition to the Sussex Emergency Operations Center in Georgetown.

After about two hours of sometimes emotional public testimony before a packed house at the Sea-ford Fire Hall, city council Tuesday night put on hold the vote on proposed transition of E-911 ser-vices/police dispatch functions from the Seaford 911 Center to Sussex County and Delaware State Po-lice – pending further review.

City council voted 4-1 to support Seaford Mayor David Genshaw’s suggestion — initially voiced by Bill Higgins, one of the audience speakers — that the city “pull together a committee of some of the key people … to meet, to look at all the numbers, all the costs, all the options in way to save our 911 center.”

In a budgetary cost-saving attempt, city is contemplating transitioning 911 service to Georgetown and shut down the Seaford center, which shares space with the city police department in a complex on Virginia Avenue.

“I see this move as a personal safety issue, lifesaving issue for police, first responders and utility work-ers in the city of Seaford,” said longtime Seaford resident Bill Bennett, a past Seaford fire chief and 18-year city employee with the electric department.

“It is understood that this decision is based solely on money, and not service to the public and the safety and response of personnel,” said former city manager Dolores Slatcher, who emphasized she spoke as a city resident. “I personally believe good people are more important than money.”

City councilman James King, whose initial motion to table the matter for further review died due to lack of a second, said he has gained a better understanding of what the 911 center means to the Sea-ford community after speaking to numerous residents, neighbors, business owners and others.

“What happens when the balance of life is measured in seconds or minutes? This is often the case when accidents happen, be it at home, on the road, anywhere,” said Mr. King, who cast the one nay vote for the committee. “When these things happen, and emergency service protocols are engaged the threat of life and death can often be measured in seconds to minutes. Seconds or minutes, folks, not dollars and cents. “

“It comes down to this: Do we close the 911 call center down?” said Mr. King. “Do we close down an institution that has been operating effectively and efficiently as part of our community for over 40 years? I do not feel we have looked at all possible avenues in which costs can be reduced.”

Mr. King cited two potential revenue streams: fees for water tower use by communications compa-nies and the 3 percent lodging tax recently approved by council.

Based on his projections, councilman Dan Henderson said the city’s three water towers would bring in $77,400 a year, but only upon installation or by Jan. 1, 2021. The hotel/motel lodging tax, he said, would bring in $122,202 based on average 30 percent occupancy.

“These revenues that we speak of – they are down the road, possibly – would not make up the deficit without raising other revenues. These are my projections,” Mr. Henderson said.
Seaford 911 Center serves approximately 24,860 people in the entire 19973 zip code, which includes approximately 7,200 city of Seaford residents. While the Seaford 911 Center service area extends be-yond city limits it is funded only by Seaford residents.

“So, we are underwriting those costs for the greater area with very little money coming back to us,” said Seaford City Manager Charles Anderson, emphasizing the 911 center is fully funded through June of 2020.
Seaford’s current fiscal year budget for 2020 includes $657,000 in expenses for its own 911 center. On the revenue side, the city receives about $38,000 annually from a fee imposed on telephones and cell phones to subsidize 9-1-1 calls.

Councilman King

A 19 percent cost increase is anticipated for the next fiscal year, which includes technical upgrades, facility maintenance and training along with space constraints.

Moving 911 operations to Georgetown would result in substantial savings of $400,000 to $500,000 in 2020, according to the city, which has grappled with financial budgetary challenges the past several years.
“We submitted a budget initially this year that was $1.4 million in deficit. We made changes to that budget,” said Mr. Anderson.

Councilman William Mulvaney acknowledged the citizens “have a point in that we find a way to raise the money to save the center. It’s wonderful concept. However, on the downside there is only a cou-ple ways we can do it. All I ever here from the citizens now is, ‘My electric bill …’ Well, guess where it’s going to have to come from. Property owners cannot foot this bill as homeowners in this city. It has to be shared by everyone. That includes the renters. The renters in this community are scot-free right now. The only way can get revenue from them is to raise the electric bill.”

“Are we willing to sit here and say, ‘We don’t mind paying higher electric rates?” added Mr. Mulvaney. “That is where we have to get the money from. We have no other choice. It’s either that or we’re go-ing to raise the water and sewer. It’s the only revenue stream the city has. We can’t wave a magic wand. I want to save the center, personally. If you are willing to pay the price, I am willing to vote the way I feel.”

Mr. Henderson said in order to balance the city budget and not earmark other monies, the city “would have to raise taxes from our 34 cents to 45 cents per $100 (assessed value). As an example, he said his current tax bill is $703.12. The tax rate hike would up his annual property tax to $930.60.

“That doesn’t sound like much to a person like me but it sure sounds like a lot to a single mother, or a widow or anybody else in town having a hard making ends meet,” said Mr. Henderson. “We are in a quandary. What do we do?”

If the center is transitioned, Mr. Anderson said the city is “very optimistic our people will be absorbed … some of the highest trained people in this county if not in the state. That is one of the big reasons why we looked at a 10-month rollout of this. We want to keep these people employed until they can find other employment if this is the way we go.”

Mr. Anderson added that the county (SussCom) has provided the city these same services in the past, referring as an example during the Seaford Police Department renovation.

“I don’t think anyone in the community knew it happened. Residents will not notice a difference as they have not in the past,” said Mr. Anderson. “We are already providing a duplicate service. That was one of the issues that came up and was discussed.”
More than a dozen people, including past and current Seaford police and fire chiefs, stepped to the podium in support of keeping Seaford 911 Center in service.

Resident Debbie Hall said there is a “sense of community of what this 911 center does for us that can-not be measured. I don’t like taxes, but my husband and I believe in this dispatch center that much, you can raise my dad-gone taxes and I won’t mind one bit.”

Seaford 911 Dispatch Administrator Anita Bell said the Seaford 911 Center, with its staff that includes nine dispatchers and several other civilian employees who maintain the Nationally Accredited 911 Communications Center on a 24-hour basis, provides a personal service touch to thousands of city and neighboring residents and visitors.

Last year, the Seaford center ran 15,488 police calls, 810 fire calls and 3,547 EMS calls, Ms. Bell said. At this point thus far this year, the numbers are 9,934 police, 466 fire 466 and 2,343 EMS.

“Face-to-face to contact with officers on a daily basis makes it a personal experience. We make sure that we watch out for our own. We know what is going daily, what calls came in the night before and what is going on during the day,” said Ms. Bell. “Could I say that anybody could provide the same ser-vice? No. We’re like going to a ‘mom and pop’ versus going to a chain store. Residents receive an ex-pected level of service that dispatch provides.

We specialize in the duties that we provide, and we love our citizens. We love being here. If we wanted to work somewhere else, we would have already done that.”

“If this is this big of a deal with this many people here, we want to see what we can do to save it,” said Al Cranston. “We need to see options. If it’s too much it’s too much. I get it. But we need to see op-tions. It’s that personal touch that changes the game. We built this town on that. We are revitalizing the town on that.”

“If you vote to close the 911 dispatch center down tonight, and the dispatchers start to find jobs and leave, how are you going to staff it?” said Mr. Bennett. “Or are you going to have to close it down ear-ly? If you have to close it down early, is the EOC and SussCom going to be able to staff up and handle the increased call volume that we have in Seaford? Will other departments be phased out?”
“My feeling is we need to find a way to do this. And greater minds than mine will come up with the idea,” said Bunny Williams. “These are people really invested in the city.”

Resident Dan Cannon said, “My question to mayor and city council: Is the Seaford 911 center the place to cut costs? I would suggest that there are other alternatives. Think about $300,000 that we’ve spent annually for the golf course. Think about $750,000 proposed to renovate the swimming pool that is supposed to be public.”
Mr. Cannon suggested the city weigh other potential cost reductions and explore the possibility of se-curing state and/or federal monies for the 911 center.

Rick Stewart, president of the Seaford Volunteer Fire Department, said the fire department is disap-pointed with the possible closure of the Seaford center and loss of employment for the community. He added the proposed of transfer of services from Seaford dispatch to Sussex EOC will “in no way delay our response time for any calls of service.”

Seaford Fire Chief Jack Wilson said, “The Seaford Volunteer Fire Department agrees the 911 center provides us with a personal touch of procedures, policies and community readiness. We understand the Sussex Emergency Operations Center is a state-of-the-art communications center and we also work with them. We also know it would be easy to flip the switch for fire and EMS operations.”

“The Seaford fire department would love to see the current 9111 center stay in place. We live, work, volunteer, drive, play, go to school and respond within the confines of this community. The 911 center here in Seaford has saved lives. It has made ever-lasting relationships,” Mr. Wilson said. “We also have to be prepared to change over if the vote of city council is successful.”

Former Seaford Police Chief Robert Kracyla, who now resides in New Castle County, said the reality is “having that dedicated personnel to have a personal relationship with everyone is invaluable in my book. That human element is critically important.”

“Can you save money? You certainly can,” said Mr. Kracyla. “But is it worth risking people’s service and possibly their lives?”
Echoing that was current Seaford Police Chief Marshall Craft, Jr., who noted through in-house dispatch connections police are able further serve and assist the community, noting such instances a lost or found dog, instructions in delivering a baby, immediate response to a water main break and other var-ious levels of emergencies.

“This is a very busy police department,” said Chief Craft. “It’s easy to say that you’re going to get the same service when you flip the switch. That’s easy for counties. That’s easy for SussCom. They do get that same call. It’s the easy feeling that you have with that trust-based relationship. No one can beat the service that we provide.”

“I’m not here to speak about the budget,” said Chief Craft. “It’s up to the council to do what they feel is right for the taxpayer. That is not why I am here. I am here for the support for the people.”
Among the first to take the podium was longtime Seaford resident Bill Higgins, who has been on the fire service and police sides. He told the audience he began a long career with Seaford police in 1959.

“This is dear to my heart. I had written a speech. I took the thing and threw it in the trash can. You need to speak from your heart. This means a lot to me,” said Mr. Higgins. “People, they want the best, the best police protection, best fire protection, and best protection … that you are going to come there in a quick manner. This may not happen. I’m concerned.”

“I can’t make a motion,” said Mr. Higgins. “But I can suggest something, that we table this situation, that the mayor appoint a feasibility study to be done by the fire chief, police chief, (dispatch adminis-trator) Anita Bell, councilman Henderson, police commissioner … the previous police commissioner. I saw something the other day, and it says, ‘Keep America great again.’ Let’s continue to keep Seaford great again.”

Mayor Genshaw thanked the many people who attended for their passion in what is a difficult matter.
“If council is not ready to vote, I am happy to take Mr. Higgins’ suggestion and pull a committee to-gether, and poll the group that says, ‘What other things can we look at in our city to cut to save our center, or to raise rates,” said Mayor Genshaw.

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