SAVANNAH, GA (WTOC) - City of Savannah 911 communications and dispatch services for other municipalities in Chatham County will be stopped in 2018 if the communities do not reach a mutual service agreement.
Savannah City Manager Rob Hernandez said the city currently provides 911 answering and dispatch services for all of Chatham County, except Tybee Island.
"Come February 1, if we don't have agreements to provide 911 and dispatching services with our neighboring communities, legally, the city cannot provide the services, and we've put these communities on notice to let them know that absent in agreement, we will not be providing services on their behalf," Hernandez said. "We can't legally. The Georgia Constitution prohibits us from providing services on behalf of another local government, and so we don't have agreements in place. We've notified communities that we need to have those agreements in place, and that has nothing to do with the funding structure We can work the funding structure out later, but we need the proper legal authority to provide these services. And if we don't have those agreements, then on February 1 – and certainly before then we will notify these communities that have chosen, for whatever reason, not to enter into an agreement with us – then, the City of Savannah will not be providing 911 and dispatching services on their behalf."
Bloomingdale, Garden City, Thunderbolt, Pooler and Port Wentworth would be affected.
Garden City City Manager Ron Feldner said he doesn't expect any interruption to 911 services.
"Garden City has been in close communication with Savannah staff on this issue and we are confident that a satisfactory resolution will be reached between us," Feldner said. "Savannah staff has recently sent over a proposed intergovernmental agreement for our review as well as a proposed cost plan. Garden City just received this information within the last week so our staff is still reviewing it. We anticipate working with Savannah and the other local governments in the county towards a successful outcome in the future such that no interruption of 911 services occurs in Garden City."
Chatham County Manager Lee Smith said there would be no impact to service in unincorporated areas of the county because the county already pays into Savannah's 911 agreement.
However, Henandez said the financial burden of the 911 operations center falls mainly on Savannah and its taxpayers.
"I think this year, we're looking at a deficit of $1.7 million in the 911 fund," he said. "Last year, it was $2.3 million, and right now, those costs are borne by the City of Savannah and the county. But understand, that we have this issue that we're currently trying to resolve with the county in terms of repayment of services provided by Savannah, and if that falls through, that means the entire burden is on the City of Savannah. And we don't think that that's fair."
Hernandez said other communities have enjoyed free service, while Savannah handles the cost and the legal liability.
"That's why they're able to have, you know, a millage rate of 3 percent, a millage rate of 5 percent, and ours is 12.8," Hernandez said. "It's because we're providing these services, you know, on a regional basis without compensation, and, again, that's just not fair. And it's not only that. We assume all the legal liability, and that's not fair either. You know, if one of Chief's officers gets involved responding to a call...we're on the hook for all the costs associated with that response, and if he gets into an accident or an injury. And, again, that's not fair."
Tybee Island is the only city in Chatham County with it's own 911 dispatch center, and Mayor Jason Buelterman knows what it takes and what it costs to set up your own.
"It takes a lot of money, first off, and a heavy investment at the front end for all of the equipment that you have to purchase, and then money going forward to maintain it and pay the staff," he said. "Then also, you have to have a dedicated, knowledgeable team to man that center.
Buelterman said about four or five people staff the center, and one person coordinates it. After collections from cell phone and landline phone bills, he said Tybee Island pays between $250,000 and $300,000 a year to maintain its 911 communications center.
"Ultimately, I think, what's going on now is Savannah is trying to recoup their costs as well from the municipalities, so I understand what they're doing," he said. "It's a lot of work to set up your own 911 center. It costs a lot of money, and it takes a lot of time. So I would encourage any municipality that's looking at doing it on their own to recognize the costs and the work involved upfront."
Tybee Island previously considered closing its 911 dispatch and using Savannah's instead, but Buelterman said the city thought having its own provided better safety for those on the island.
"Our staff has intimate knowledge of the island, and we were having issues in the past with police officers or ambulance or fire trucks being sent to the wrong location," he said. "We looked at that a couple years go, but ultimately decided it made sense for our citizens and the people who visit Tybee to keep it out there. It makes everybody safer, even though it's costing us a lot of money."
Buelterman said said he isn't sure if a municipality could set up a functional 911 dispatch center between now and February.
"I don't know," Buelterman said. "I think it would be difficult for them to do that, but, you know, I guess it's possible."
WTOC also reached out to the cities of Pooler, Thunderbolt, Port Wentworth and Bloomingdale for comment, but did not receive a response Wednesday.