1% sales tax would help pay rising costs of Whiteside County 911 service, new facility

Without it, rural emergency agencies may be facing cuts or higher expenses, proponents say

Three year veteran Kelly Boos works in the dispatch center located at the Sterling Police Department Monday, Oct. 31, 2022. The county is asking voters to pass a 1% sales tax to pay for the construction and operation of a center that would combine Sterling and Morrison.

MORRISON – You won’t be surprised to learn that all of Whiteside County has the same 911 service.

You might be surprised to learn that not every municipality or agency supports that service equally.

Right now, more than half of the $2.2 million it takes to operate the two county-run 911 dispatch centers each year – about $1.2 million – is being shouldered by Sterling and Rock Falls alone.

And it’s not enough. The system is running about $500,000 in the red.

To cover the difference, the remainder is coming from the county’s general fund.

Police departments outside of Sterling and Rock Falls also pitch in some money, usually less than $1,000 or so.

In an effort to level the playing field – and to raise enough money to consolidate the two centers – Whiteside County voters will be asked Tuesday to increase the countywide sales tax by 1%.

If it passes, the public safety tax, estimated to raise more than $4 million a year, would add $10 in tax for every $1,000 spent on retail items, including fuel, restaurant meals and prepared food – items often bought by nonresidents.

It would not be charged on purchases of groceries, drugs (including over-the-counter medications and vitamins), cars, trucks, all-terrain vehicles, boats and recreational vehicles, mobile homes, farm equipment and parts, and farm inputs.

The money raised would be used to alleviate the rising costs of operating and maintaining the existing centers – one at the sheriff’s department in Morrison and the other at the Sterling Police Department – and the cost of salaries, benefits and training for roughly two dozen dispatchers.

Toshia Paarman takes call Monday, Oct. 31, 2022 at the Sterling dispatch center.

Money raised beyond that will be used to build one unified center, which proponents say would cut costs by reducing overhead, and improve operations and cooperation among emergency agencies.

The money now being paid by the county, Sterling and Rock Falls would go back into their general funds, to be spent on other things.

The new tax revenue could be used only for matters of public safety, so once a center is built, the funds left over after its budget is met could be used to buy police radios, say, or squad cars, or fire trucks.

Or the tax could be reduced.

If it doesn’t pass, things could get dicey for towns and agencies in the west end of the county – essentially, those outside of Sterling and Rock Falls – that are not now contributing equally to 911.

That’s Morrison, Fulton, Erie, Albany, Lyndon, Tampico, Prophetstown, Coleta, Deer Grove, and Fenton police, fire and EMS services.

The county could, for example, start billing those services the actual costs of their use of 911.

Paying those bills, however, “will be difficult, because a lot of them are volunteer agencies, and they don’t have that kind of funding or budgets,” said Claudia Garcia, director of Whiteside County Dispatch Centers.

Those that can’t pay their bills then might have to cut the emergency services they offer, Garcia said.

Or contract with other towns farther away.

Or increase property taxes.

This will be the second time the county has sought to pass a public safety tax referendum; a measure calling for a half-percent increase was on the ballot in November 2020, but was defeated, 19,835 to 7,103.

In 2014, after three failed attempts, Whiteside voters did pass a similar referendum, adding a 1% sales tax that schools can use only to build and maintain buildings, or to pay off bonds sold for buildings and maintenance purposes.

Last fiscal year, July 1, 2021 to June 30, it raised $5.9 million.

The public safety referendum comes in part as the result of an unfunded state mandate.

A new law that took effect July 31, 2015, with the objective of moving closer to a uniform statewide 911 system, allowed no more than two dispatch units in counties with 250,000 or fewer residents.

Whiteside County’s deadline to implement the new system was July 1, 2017; the system actually launched that June 26, when four centers – Sterling’s, Rock Falls’, Morrison’s and Whiteside County’s – were reduced to two, both taken on by the county.

That meant the county also took on the cost of 16 employees, a director and an additional dispatch center, plus all the equipment.

At the time, it was estimated it would cost about $1.2 million a year to run the two centers. The actual cost is nearly double that.

Because of the tight budget and yearly funding deficit, there is no extra money for things such as recruitment. There needs to be 24 dispatchers for the centers to be fully staffed, for example; at the moment, there are only 19, Garcia said.

The pinch is felt, Garcia said.

On average, dispatchers answer more than 7,800 non-emergency 911 calls a month, and dispatch more than 4,900 calls to police, fire, and EMS.

Finally consolidating dispatch services is the other reason for the referendum.

The county has been discussing merging 911 centers into one facility, for efficiency and cost-saving measures, for more than a decade.

In 2011, a study estimated it would cost about $10 million to build a stand-alone facility; obviously, that cost would be higher today.

It also estimated at the time that consolidation would save $14 million over 10 years, also likely to be more today.

If the sales tax passes, a new study would be commissioned, and officials would start scouting locations, with a goal of building the new facility within the next decade.

Locally, Lee County has had one dispatch center since 1997.

Kathleen Schultz

Kathleen A. Schultz

Kathleen Schultz is a Sterling native with 40 years of reporting and editing experience in Arizona, California, Montana and Illinois.