911 center

Cowlitz County 911 dispatcher Tara Huhta works in the basement of the Hall of Justice.

Daily News file photo

Cowlitz County 911 Center officials are considering separating from the county to speed up decision making and rid themselves of a widely criticized and cumbersome governing structure.

Members of the 911 E-Board have agreed to hire a consultant to study the 911 center’s governing structure and also consider alternatives: user agencies’ switch to using Clark County’s 911 center (Clark Regional Emergency Services Agency, known as CRESA) or making the 911 agency independent from the county.

Steve Taylor, E-Board vice chairman and Kelso city manager, said the voter-approved 0.1 percent sales tax for 911 services would enable the center to become an independent agency, bringing it out from under the county’s umbrella. The sales tax would be used in part for a new facility to move the 911 center out of the Hall of Justice basement.

The 26-year-old interlocal agreement gives the E-Board authority over the 911 director. (The E-Board is made up of local government representatives and agencies.) Both the 911 Council and E-Board have authority over major changes to the center. But former county commissioner Mike Karnofski in January 2016 told the 911 E-Board that the county has the authority to make decisions on county employees and county-owned equipment. Since then, E-Board members, fire and police officials and 911 Director Deanna Wells have been in limbo, unsure of who has the final authority over major decisions.

Taylor said the county attorney hasn’t budged since then, and having many people claim an authority on the 911 decisions has “created a real governing mess.”

“I believe our interlocal agreement is crystal clear as to who is in charge,” Taylor said. “If the county is unwilling to budge, rather than continue to fight, we can set up a structure that makes it very clear the users who are paying the freight are able to come up with policy.”

Law enforcement and fire agencies in October requested a study on whether they could switch to CRESA. Clark County’s center is known among local officials as one of the best-rated 911 centers nationwide for its customer service to user agencies. Some officials, however, are concerned Cowlitz agencies may not have as much control at a larger regional 911 center.

Cowlitz 2 Fire & Rescue Chief Dave LaFave said regardless of which option the 911 center takes — CRESA or its own independent agency — he believes having an agency separate from the county is the only option to give user agencies more of a voice.

“Whether that model be by regionalization (through CRESA) or stand-alone, that’s what needs to occur,” LaFave said. “Right now it gives the county commissioners all the say.”

Many officials have said the troubles surrounding the 911 center can be traced to an ineffective governance model. Cowlitz Fire District 5 Chief Vic Leatzow independently started his own digital radio system to improve 911 coverage in the Kalama area — a system other local agencies want to connect to — and last year county commissioners put Wells on an employee improvement plan to address criticisms.

Commissioner Joe Gardner said the commissioners are open to hearing all the options.

“Our main concern is hearing from the stakeholders ... as to what issues they want to address in the current location,” Gardner said.

In November voters approved a 0.1 percent sales tax for the 911 services, which will bring in another $1.2 million a year for the center. Wells also began a facilities committee to help find a new facility for the center above the flood plain.

Contact Daily News reporter Hayat Norimine at 360-577-7828

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