By Ron Fitzwater
April 10, 2012. Blowing Rock – After more than an hour of debate, questions and comments, the Blowing Rock Town Council voted 3-2 not to join the proposed Watauga County Consolidated  Communications Center. The board denied the county request in spite of the fact that according to Town Manager Scott Hilldebrand and Mayor J.B. Lawrence joining with the county could save the township tens of thousands of dollars annually, and that both Blowing Rock Police Chief Eric Brown and Emergency Services Director Kent Graham were in agreement that joining with the county would improve services for town residents.
High on the list of concerns posed by board members about the consolidation was the fact that Boone had yet agreed to come on board with the county, the loss of administrative duties performed by township dispatchers at the police department, the ability for dispatchers outside the township to properly direct first responders, and the fair distribution of costs for the center.
Watauga County Commissioner Vance Gable was on hand for the discussion as the county representative and lead proponent of the center, to answer questions about the project and encourage the board members to vote to join in.
“We are in a position right now where we are ready to go,” Gable said adding, “We have equipment to order and a director to hire, but we have had good response on our applications and we are ready implement this and are looking for your support on this.”
The plan by the county, according to Gable, was to bring Blowing Rock online with the center July 1 with Boone coming on October 1. This would give the center time to assimilate the dispatchers from the towns in an orderly manner so as not to interfere with service.
Councilman Dan Phillips’ was the most vocal of the board members in opposition. His major concern was that Blowing Rock is being asked to shoulder an unfair percentage of the overall costs associated with the center. “If you look at the difference in the cost [of what the county will save after receiving federal 911 funds] is almost the same cost as Blowing Rock would be contributing for the entire dispatch system. Then, if you look at Boone when they come on, those costs will be very similar. So, for our participation it looks like, to me from a distribution aspect, our percentage is higher.”
Gable said that he did not see the numbers that way and that “the county isn’t going to see any kind of windfall and would only save $4,000 annually, if anything at all.”
Initially, Blowing Rock would have been responsible for 26 percent of the total operating funds; if and when Boone joined in, it would drop to 16 percent.
Lawrence informed the board that according to the financial analysis Blowing Rock would save “$54,500” in the 2013 budget and asked the board members, “If you get better service for less money, why wouldn’t you do it?”
As for safety concerns, Hildebran explained to the board that currently with one dispatcher on duty, there was no back-up for them if a second call came in while they were dealing with an emergency situation. Joining in with the county would make more dispatchers available to handle multiple calls. Also, concerns about county dispatchers aiding first responders to locate addresses were moot because the county currently handles all 911 calls for emergency services for Blowing Rock and only police calls are handled by town dispatchers. Hildebran then pointed out that if and when the state makes having multiple dispatchers per shift mandatory, the town would be solely responsible for hiring additional personnel; a cost that would far exceed the town’s percentage of the centers cost. Joining in with the county now would allow the town to get ahead of the requirement also equaling savings for the town.
Additional points were voiced by councilmen Tommy Klutz and Jim Steele, who were concerned that services commonly provided by Blowing Rock dispatchers working in the BRPD office would be lost. “When people call the police department they want to speak to someone,” Steele said. Also, the loss of personnel would, according to Steele, require the town to hire at least one administrative assistant to answer phone calls and interact with the public thus negating any savings from joining with the county.
This line of discussion resulted in Lawrence asking if the town was “running a police department or a social services department?” “Police calls need to o through 911.”
During the discussion Gable was asked about what would happen if towns did not join in and then later decided they wanted in what the result would be? Gable answered that currently it was a turf war between the county and Boone, with that town’s board at 50/50 on the issue. If towns came on later, they would simply have to shoulder the cost of expanding the center to adjust to the increased work load. Phillips took the statement as a strong-arm threat but Gable said it wasn’t that at all, but just simple economics. “If more services are added there will have to be a reconfiguration of the system, which costs money.”
Debate, often contentious, went back and forth on the staffing and funding issues with no progress or consensus being reached. This prompted Lawrence to call for a vote at just over an hour. The vote resulted in the board denying the county’s request to join the center and assign a representative to the center board that will be established.
Voting for the request were Councilmen Doug Matheson and Albert Yount; voting against the request were Councilmen Dan Phillips, Jim Steele, and Tommy Klutz.