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Doubts cast on 911 money

BY Carolyn Muyskens - cmuyskens@chronicle-tribune.com

Marion city officials are less certain they have a winning case for funds that the Grant County Council has withheld from the city.

At a budget committee meeting Tuesday, Mayor Jess Alumbaugh said there was “no guarantee” the city would be able to get the money, which Marion Police Chief Angela Haley requested from the county's E-911 fund in June to pay the salaries of dispatchers in the city's 911 dispatching center.

City Controller Julie Flores said she wasn't sure the city was actually entitled to the funds. Flores said she had consulted with State Rep. Kevin Mahan (R-Hartford City) about the issue.

In early August, City Attorney Tom Hunt had sent a letter to County Council President Jim McWhirt demanding the denied funds, about $370,000, be paid to the city within 30 days or the city would “take steps” to force the county to disburse the money, suggesting legal action. Alumbaugh confirmed legal action was on the table in comments to the City Council in September saying the city would “go through the legal process” and “pursue (the money) to the end.”

Hunt said the state statute that regulates county E-911 funds is “very ambiguous” and does not necessarily require a county's two 911 answering points to receive equitable or proportional distribution of the funds, which are generated through a tax on residents' phone bills.

“There doesn't appear to be a formula set up by the statute,” Hunt said.

There may be an “interlocal agreement” between the city and the county laying out how funds should be distributed between Grant County's two dispatch centers that receive 911 calls. Hunt said he has not been able to find it yet, isn't sure what it contains or even if it exists.

But Hunt said the problem with the council's denial lies in the fact that the council told Haley she could have the money if she came up with a plan for central dispatch.

“That is a problem because they have no authority under the statute to attach conditions,” Hunt said.

The County Council's attorney, Phil Stephenson, said he could not comment on the issue because of the conflict of also serving as attorney for the Marion City Council.

Stephenson did say he was not aware of any interlocal agreement about the E-911 fund.

Alumbaugh and McWhirt have met once to discuss the conflict over the money and are planning to meet again about the issue soon, the mayor said.

Alumbaugh's Chief of Staff Mike Flynn said Tuesday he was “still hopeful” about the city's chances of getting the money.

The mayor stressed Tuesday he wants to resolve the city-county conflict peacefully. Alumbaugh said he is “tired of the adversarial relationship” between city and county and wanted to build a bridge with the county government through the discussions with McWhirt.

In the past, the E-911 fund has typically been used to pay for technology upgrades and equipment costs at both the city and county dispatch centers. Last year, in a scramble to balance the county budget, the County Council dipped into the fund to pay for over $400,000 in Sheriff's Department dispatcher salaries for the first time.

The County Council has shifted the dispatcher salaries back into the Sheriff's Department budget for 2019.