ATLANTIC, Iowa — People calling 911 in Cass County, Iowa, could still expect to talk to a local dispatcher in an emergency, even if a New Jersey company took over operation of the county's dispatch center.
The Cass County Board on Wednesday discussed a preliminary proposal to privatize the dispatch center as a way to save space in the Cass County Courthouse, and possibly money.
Board Chairman Mark Wedemeyer of Atlantic initiated talks with IXP Corp. of New Jersey, a security outsourcing company. He acknowledged that it would be unusual for a private company to run a 911 system. IXP has told him it provides the services to a handful of counties and municipalities.
“There is not very much of it being done anywhere in the country,” he said. “We just thought we had a fiduciary responsibility to look into the possibility.”
County officials have said they do not know of any other Iowa county that has contracted with a private company for 911 services.
Larry Dix, executive director of the Nebraska Association of County Officials, said he knows of no counties in Nebraska, either, that have privatized 911 services, although some have consolidated their service with other counties.
In western Nebraska, Keith County handles calls for six other counties.
Whether Cass County could save money by contracting with IXP, or any other company, is not known. IXP would charge the county $12,500 to study the feasibility of taking over its 911 service, an amount that County Board members balked at spending.
The company has offered to speak with the County Board via conference call to discuss what it can offer.
“They are very interested in coming down here, but they have never had a county this small,” Wedemeyer said.
The 911 center's budget is $467,628 for the current fiscal year. There are six dispatchers plus the 911 center's director, Rob Koppert.
One factor driving the discussion is a lack of space for the dispatch center in the Cass County Courthouse.
The roughly 120-square-foot dispatch center is stacked with computer screens, keyboards and radio equipment. It is housed in a room in the County Jail, with the door to a holding cell just across a narrow hall.
The county has looked at using a separate building for its dispatch center but has not found a suitable site. Officials also have considered expanding the nearly 80-year-old courthouse, but there are concerns about how much that would cost.
County officials also want to add staff to deal with an expanding workload for the dispatch center, which took about 7,500 911 calls during the 2012 calender year.
The company has told Wedemeyer that it has, in all cases in which it has taken over a 911 system, hired the current dispatchers and kept their pay the same.
Starting dispatchers are paid $14.51 per hour and after a year make $16.69 per hour, according to the county.
The 911 service would remain in the county, but finding a place to put it may be left to the company. Dispatchers in New Jersey would not handle calls from Iowa, Wedemeyer said.
Atlantic is about 55 miles east of Omaha.
Koppert said some of his dispatchers might not stick around even if their wages stayed the same under a private company, fearing that their benefits and job security would shrink in the private sector.
“I have a number who said they would probably be interested in locating elsewhere and wouldn't be interested in working for a private company,” he said after the meeting .
Sheriff Darby McLaren said he has no problem exploring privatization but doubted that it would be a money saver. If the dispatchers' pay were to remain the same, it would be hard to find savings.
“I would be shocked if the county can save money by privatization,” he said.