Results from the $96,922 Lewis County 911 feasibility study launched over the summer were presented to county commissioners Tuesday, posing the question of whether Lewis County should consolidate 911 dispatch services with Thurston County’s 911 Communications (TCOMM).
The feasibility study, conducted by California consulting firm DELTAWRX, confirmed that major funding is required to overhaul the county’s antiquated radio infrastructure, and that Lewis County’s emergency communications center is “underfunded and understaffed” by as many as 10 full-time employees.
Earlier this year, the idea was that merging with TCOMM would save Lewis County money and improve services. But DELTAWRX’s analysis suggests that there may be minimal price difference if the county chose to improve services locally versus consolidating with Thurston County — $23.1 million to consolidate versus $23.5 to stay in Lewis County.
Besides casting doubt on the cost-saving theory, county officials raised multiple other concerns about consolidating with TCOMM, such as a potential loss of local control.
“The idea of consolidation sounds good, and it may look good on paper, but it doesn’t work all the time,” County Commissioner Bobby Jackson said.
County Manager Erik Martin also noted that Lewis County might have to convince Thurston County to get on board in the first place. Without full enthusiastic support, Jackson warned the partnership could end up crumbling.
“I think from the beginning the impression has been that TCOMM was entertaining the idea because we asked them to,” Jackson said. If the merger happens, but then falls apart, Jackson fears “the county’s going to be left holding a much bigger bag than if we make a decision to just keep it here and figure out our issues.”
And a transition wouldn’t guarantee a fix to the county’s glaring infrastructure issues — a study earlier this year prompted sticker shock when it revealed 911 communication infrastructure renovations could run up to $7.7 million. TCOMM has already made it clear, according to Martin, that they do not want to take on those infrastructure problems.
“They don’t want to get blamed if calls don’t work. They want to see our radio system up to snuff,” he said.
Another hurdle would be the actual transition to the merger. By DELTAWRX’s estimations, TCOMM would start taking local 911 calls by 2023, rerouting them back to Lewis County. TCOMM likely wouldn’t begin dispatching Lewis County’s law enforcement until 2026 or 2027. The transition might mean a loss of local jobs, as TCOMM “has made it clear that they will not guarantee anyone who works here a job,” Martin said. “We’d have to convince those people to somehow stay here even though their job is working its way out the door.”
In terms of what the partnership would look like, county leaders also raised the concern that TCOMM would treat the county as a ratepayer rather than a partner — a concern especially notable since DELTAWRX already identified intra-county frustrations about local control.
The study found that there is “not a true partnership” between the county and local emergency response agencies, and that the relationship is “characterized by friction and distrust.”
“Partner agencies would like their input into budgeting, operations and hiring decisions to be more than recommendations,” read DELTAWRX’s presentation.
Martin noted that price estimates for improving services locally or merging with TCOMM are just that — estimates. Lewis County could possibly keep services local for cheaper than $23.5 million, for example, by taking over an empty building instead of building a new one, as DELTAWRX suggested.
“This is very preliminary,” he said. “A lot of refining work would need to be done in either scenario.”
Commissioners are not on an immediate timeline to make what would be “a very permanent decision,” according to Martin.