If a proposed area police and fire dispatching council of governments comes to fruition, it could have a fourth member.

The cities of Stow, Cuyahoga Falls and Tallmadge may be joined by the Summit County Sheriff's Office.

"The county initiated some preliminary discussions with the mayors to see whether it would be possible for the county to potentially join as a member of the COG," Jason Dodson, chief of staff for Summit County Executive Ilene Shapiro, told the Stow Sentry on Dec. 15. "We've had those discussions and we're kind of just working through the process right now to see whether it's something that's beneficial for the county and other parties involved."

Dodson said Summit County Council's approval would be needed for the sheriff's dispatch to join the COG.

Stow Mayor Sara Kline said she sees it as a positive development.

"I think it would be a great and welcome addition and we look forward to talking with them," she said.

Kline said that for just Stow and Cuyahoga Falls, it is estimated nine or 10 dispatch consoles would be needed, but a current plan would accommodate 16 consoles in the proposed space in a Summit County Health Department building off Graham Road. Kline said that although she did not know the maximum number of consoles that could fit in that space, the plan could be reconfigured to allow additional consoles to allow for the sheriff's office, if necessary, and for other communities that may want to join the COG later on.

"The size would absolutely be able to accommodate the number of consoles [the sheriff] would need," said Kline.

Previously, Kline said the goal was to form the COG by the end of the year -- with dispatch operations up and running in mid-2017 -- but as yet, legislation has not yet been introduced in any of the three city councils to do so.

Kline, however, said during Stow Council's Dec. 8 committee-of-the-whole meeting that work is being done in the communities.

"The law directors are diligently continuing to work on the legislation and COG bylaws and the finance directors of the respective entities continue to work on putting together a firm budget that we can present to the legislative bodies so we can anticipate having more conversation after the new year," said Kline.

Kline also said that Hudson had considered joining the COG, but decided not to at this time.

COG would unite multiple entities

The proposal has been for Stow, Cuyahoga Falls and Tallmadge to form a combined dispatch service under the supervision of a COG. The COG would be governed by a board of trustees, which Kline has said typically includes mayors and possible other community officials, such as police and fire chiefs and city council members.

Currently, besides dispatching for themselves, Stow dispatches for Tallmadge, Mogadore and Randolph Township and Cuyahoga Falls presently dispatches for Munroe Falls and Silver Lake through service contracts.

According to Stow's 2015 annual report, the city's 14 full-time and six part-time dispatchers fielded about 180,000 phone calls that year while according to Cuyahoga Falls website, its dispatch center handles an average of 120,000 calls annually. According to the sheriff's office website, its 15 full-time and part-time dispatchers answer more than 300,000 calls annually.

Kline has said that all Stow and Cuyahoga Falls dispatchers would retain jobs and Sheriff's Inspector Bill Holland told the Stow Sentry Dec. 20 that the sheriff's dispatch center is "understaffed right now."

"There wouldn't be a reduction in manpower," he said. "Even if there was a collaboration, we would need to do some hiring."

The cities are considering leasing 5,000 square feet at the rear of the health department building near Route 8. City officials have said the space, which would be secured to prevent unauthorized entry, provides enough area for current operations, as well as future expansion if other communities decide they want the dispatch center to provide them with dispatching under service contracts.

The plan is not universally popular. Stow Council members Brian Lowdermilk and Bob Adaska have both said they want dispatch to remain in the city's safety center and they believe there is room for expansion, especially if the law department is moved from its space in the safety center back to City Hall.

Adaska said he was involved in the planning of the building as a Council member in the early 1990s, and it was designed for safety and security, including as a tornado shelter.

Adaska, who has been particularly vocal in his opposition to the city joining a COG, and Lowdermilk also say they are concerned about the costs of moving to another building and the costs of a lease, as well as the transparency and accountability of a COG.

To the end, Lowdermilk sponsored an ordinance that would give Council approval power of the COG's bylaws and any future amendments to it. The ordinance was introduced for first reading Nov. 17 and given second reading on during Council's Dec. 8 regular meeting.

'End of life' for radio equipment

On the other side of the debate, during a Sept. 20 joint meeting of Stow, Cuyahoga Falls and Tallmadge city councils, Stow Fire Capt. Paul Amonett said Stow's radio equipment is "coming to end of life." Information distributed at the meeting showed the estimated combined costs for Stow and Cuyahoga Falls to maintain separate dispatch centers would require approximately $3.4 million in upgrades. Completing a joint dispatch center showed estimated costs of $2.7 million.

"We would need new equipment as well," said Holland. "Even if we stayed independent, there would be changes in our dispatch center as well. This appears to be a great time to do this. With everybody needing new equipment and upgrades, it just makes sense to join together."

And Stow resident Bruce Campbell said during Council's Oct. 27 COW meeting that his experience as public safety director for North Royalton, which belongs to two non-dispatch COGs and entered into a contract in 2014 for dispatching provided by a Strongsville-owned dispatch center, is that there could be a cost savings involving equipment purchases.

Holland said this is because of redundancy.

"There would be savings because there are some pieces of equipment that if we merged with three different dispatch centers, we wouldn't need three of that piece of equipment," said Holland. "So there would be savings in the long run."

Campbell also said that with the state showing signs it is leaning toward more dispatch regionalization, such a move by the three cities could allow them to retain more local control in coming years.

County would decide quickly

Dodson said this push for regionalization is a motive for the county in joining the COG.

"Consolidated dispatch is what the state wants to see," said Dodson. "This represents an opportunity to kind of get in front of the consolidated dispatch that the state's pushing rather than not being in a position to get there when the state requires us to do so."

Dodson said he believes the county would either join the COG as it is being formed, or stay out all together.

"It wouldn't be a situation where they would form the COG and we would come in at a later date," he said.

Therefore, said Dodson, the county would likely make a decision within the next few months.

"I think the thought process would be to bring a proposal that's pretty baked and put together before everybody's councils sometime in the first quarter of next year," said Dodson. "I think it makes sense for all of the parties to kind of continue their due diligence to make sure it's something that makes sense, get it to the point where it would be appropriate to introduce to councils and have councils ask questions, make tweaks, modifications, as would be appropriate and hopefully adopt something that would work for everybody."

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