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Officials make case for a new county 911 center

Today, Grand Forks County will ask county residents to approve a 1.24-mill general bond issue to renovate the old county correctional center in downtown Grand Forks.

Today, Grand Forks County will ask county residents to approve a 1.24-mill general bond issue to renovate the old county correctional center in downtown Grand Forks.

The special election measure, if approved, would raise $1.7 million toward a $2.1 million project to move the Grand Forks Public Safety Answering Point and its 911 Emergency Dispatch Center from the Grand Forks Law Enforcement Center, across the street.

The old jail still houses the Grand Forks County Juvenile Detention Center, but the remainder of the building has been vacant since the new county detention center opened on North Washington Street in September.

The Herald asked the county a series of questions about the project and today's special election ballot measure.

A panel of county officials, including County Commission Chairman Gary Malm, Director of Finance and Tax Debbie Nelson, PSAP Director Al Morken and Director of Administration Ed Nierode, answered the questions:

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What does the PSAP do?
The 911 Emergency Dispatch Center handles emergency calls in Grand Forks County. When help is needed because of domestic situations, medical assists, fires, accidents, assaults, hazardous materials incidents or other emergencies, the 911 Emergency Dispatch Center receives the calls and manages the communications.

The 911 dispatch also is a safety net for the firefighters, law enforcement and ambulance personnel who are on the scene. The center relays requests, additional assistance and information for emergency responders.
Who runs it? How does it operate?
An authority board governs the Dispatch Center. This board has a representative from the Grand Forks City Council, Grand Forks County Commission, UND, a member of the Grand Forks Users Group, a citizen from the City of Grand Forks and a citizen from Grand Forks County. The city of Grand Forks provides all of the support services, and all of the employees are Grand Forks city employees.
Is the 911 Dispatch Center getting busier?
In 2000, we had 58,425 incidents that came through the 911 Dispatch Center. In 2006, we had 68,901. Each incident that is entered into the computer-aided dispatch program is recorded. Those incidents may be from a dog running loose to a homicide, from a lost child to a property dispute. And each incident requires several calls, or it means fielding several calls.

The biggest thing is the change in technology, especially in the past five years. Everytime we add new technology, it takes up more space. The space we're in hasn't changed since this building was built, about 30 years ago. The dispatch area is only 480 square feet. And in actual working space, there's only 378 square feet.
Why does the PSAP need to move?
For the past 11 years, the dispatch center has reviewed various relocation plans with the city of Grand Forks, Grand Forks County and UND. Emergency power, new technology, new interoperable radio communications system and the new wireless system must continue to operate at all times. We have grown from two dispatchers with a radio and phone on a table to a four-dispatcher console incorporated with all the advances in technology.

The new technology includes Computer Aided Dispatching, Enhanced 911 for hard-line phones, Phase I and Phase II cell phone technology, radio consoles that manage 17 radio channels and 12 rural paging systems, National Crime Information Center computers, connectivity to the new Grand Forks City wireless system, computer mapping, siren activation, Emergency Alert System activation and the Eventide recording system.

The aging of the baby boomers will create an increase of calls for emergency medical services. That increase, along with advancements in technology such as text messaging, voice-over Internet protocol and Blackberry cellular devices all will place more demands on our dispatch center.

All of this modern technology requires more room and additional training in order to properly operate this advanced equipment. Therefore, a training area is essential. This growth creates a critical need for space.
If it passes, when will the PSAP move?
This project would move forward immediately. It is anticipated that the bids for the project would be opened this fall, and construction would take place during the winter months. If this schedule is followed, it is believed that the project could be completed in April 2008.
Why move into the old jail rather than somewhere else?
Early in 2006, Grand Forks County approached the 911 Emergency Dispatch Center about the possibility of leasing the space in the old jail area. After much discussion, a decision was made to move forward with this project. The reasons:

-- The old Correctional Center provides adequate space for the 911 center's relocation. This includes space for dispatching, training, equipment and offices. The dispatching area itself will almost triple in size.

-- A second-floor location will allow for continuous operation even during high water times.

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-- The close proximity will allow for easier connectivity between the 911 center, Emergency Operations Center and police and sheriff's departments.

-- The cost of relocating the radio equipment and tower equipment is avoided and will provide substantial savings to the taxpayers.

-- This will provide a secure environment for the dispatchers.

-- This will provide space necessary to address the environmental needs of the dispatch center.

-- There is an adequate amount of space for the future needs of the 911 center.

-- The 911 relocation project would utilize a building with very limited uses. This project would reduce the relocation costs and eliminate a need for new construction. This lease agreement would provide revenue and utilize a vacated building.
Why put new money into an old building?
This building was built in 1954 and structurally is very sound. As a former jail, this building has stronger construction and could provide better protection for the PSAP against strong winds, etc.
If the project is rejected, what are the options/alternatives for the PSAP, including the potential costs?
If the voters vote against the renovation of the old correctional center, the 911 Authority Board would address a search for a new location or a review of previous options. This would include reviewing the space at the old Grand Forks Civic Auditorium, which has been vacant for several years. When we looked at the relocation to the old Civic Auditorium, the cost for relocation was more than $1 million, based on information that is four years old. That's just for moving communications equipment and not counting remodeling and other costs.
What else is in the old jail? How will the space in the jail be utilized?
Uses for this building are very limited and would be difficult to use for other purposes without the funds to demolish the inside and provide an empty space for a potential tenant.
Does the county have any plans to use the first floor of the old jail building?
This project would demolish the first floor and let it remain empty. There is no short-term plan. This space could be used for future county offices or cold storage space.
If the project is approved, what infrastructure improvements will be made (heating, air conditioning, windows, etc.)? Will those improvements accommodate other future uses, such as utilizing the first floor?
The boilers for the courthouse and old correctional facility will be replaced. These boilers are close to 50 years old and are in need of replacement.

The 911 Authority will pay for modifications for heating, ventilation and air conditioning that specifically are required for the dispatch center. Windows will be replaced to take away the appearance of the building being a jail.

In addition, an elevator will be installed to provide Americans with Disabilities Act access to the Juvenile Detention Center and allow movement of inmates without the danger of steps.

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The air exchangers for the old correctional center building will be replaced. The current air exchangers are not designed for the needs of the 911 center and are worn with age. These heating, ventilation and air conditioning improvements also will support the first floor of the old jail.
Will the county receive any revenue from the PSAP?
The lease agreement signed by the 911 center and Grand Forks County includes $34,038 per year, plus $17,019 for heating, lighting and maintenance costs, for a total of $51,057 annually.

This lease can be extended at the tenant's option for an additional 15 years, for a total lease of 20 years.

This is a long-term commitment for both Grand Forks County and the 911-Dispatch Center to solve a long-term need.What will it take for the measure to pass?
It would need 60 percent approval.
If it passes, how much will it cost taxpayers and for how long?
The Grand Forks County Commission approved a 10-year bond issue. If approved, that would equal 1.24 mills, based on the current value of a mill.

It would cost the owner of a $100,000 home $5.58 per year.
Where and when can people vote?
There will be 10 voting sites in Grand Forks County, one in each city. The election will be from 7 this morning to 7 tonight.
How can people vote if they cannot be available today? The can vote using absentee ballots, which are available at the Grand Forks County Office Building, 151 S. Fourth St. (only through today).

They also can request a ballot by mail. If interested in voting absentee, you may request a ballot by calling (701) 780-8200.

Kevin Bonham covers Grand Forks County government and the region for the Herald. Reach him at 780-1269; (800) 477-6572, ext. 269, or kbonham@gfherald.com .

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