By Tim Pinkham
Alleged continuing communication problems involving Martin County dispatch dominated Monday night’s meeting of the Loogootee City Council.
For about the last 18 months, the law enforcement dispatching duties for Loogootee have been evenly split between the city’s police department and the Martin County Sheriff’s Department. City dispatchers now handle calls from noon to midnight each day.
This split was pushed by former mayor Don Bowling as a means to save the city more than $50,000 annually in dispatcher salaries.
The agreement between the city and county also calls for the city to pay the county $10,000 per year to help cover the cost of dispatchers. All 911 calls have been routed to the sheriff’s department for years and is not affected by this agreement.
During the July 2012 council meeting, Councilman Rick Norris, who is also a city police officer, said communication problems during the previous few months involving the county dispatch threatened the safety of Loogootee residents. He said the problems included the occasional loss of phone service for 911 calls.
At the July meeting, Mayor Noel Harty said he had discussed the matter with Police Chief Kelly Rayhill and Fire Chief Morgan Huebner. An executive session was planned for prior to the August meeting, in which Sheriff Rob Street would be invited.
However, Monday night, both Norris and Harty said the council meeting with the sheriff never took place. The mayor said he still plans to meet with Street on the matter by March 15, which is four days after the next council meeting.
Before the city council met Monday, the Board of Public Works and Safety met briefly and approved a suggestion by Rayhill to reduce the number of hours worked by city dispatchers from 12 per day to seven per day. This would save the city $13,000 per year in salaries.
The mayor is on the board, along with councilmen Fred Dupps and Ron Gilbert.
During the council meeting, Norris initially proposed an ordinance prohibiting the city dispatchers from working less than 12 hours per day.
He said some of the same communication problems he had addressed back in July were still occurring.
Norris said until the sheriff’s department could improve its dispatching services, he was opposed to any reduction in hours for city dispatchers.
Councilman Rich Taylor agreed with Norris that it was a “public safety issue.”
Rayhill said he has never experienced any communication problems. He also said Loogootee is one of the few cities which still has its own dispatchers. Many counties now have a central location for dispatching.
Clerk-Treasurer Nancy Jones asked City Attorney Mark Jones if the council had the legal authority to pass such an ordinance to override the board’s decision. The attorney said dispatching fell under the jurisdiction of the board, but he was not sure if an ordinance would legally trump the board’s action.
At that point, Taylor moved to have the matter tabled until the March 11 meeting, which was approved by all council members except Dupps.
Harty said he would arrange a meeting with Street, which would include himself, Norris, either Dupps or Gilbert, Rayhill and Huebner. By law, no more than two council members may attend the meeting, which will not be open to the public.
If three or more members attend, that would constitute a quorum of the council, which would make it an official meeting which must be advertised and open to the public.
In other business
•Nancy Jones told the council the Department of Local Government Finance approved the city’s 2013 budget with the exception of Cumulative Capital Development, which was cut from $28,000 to $26,400.
•The council approved buying four new banners to fly over city streets, which will replace banners which have been flying for 10 years. The cost will be no more than $10,000, depending on the quotes received. Harty suggested taking $500 from the promotions budget and the remainder from Economic Development Income Tax revenue.
•The board approved two new firefighters for the city’s volunteer fire department, J.D. Graves and Logan Dant.