City scuttles 911 merger with county

Talks about merging Minneapolis' 911 system with Hennepin County's appear over, doomed by city concerns about losing control of a critical public safety service and 65 lost union jobs.

City and county staff had discussed the merger since January; in December, County Commissioner and Minneapolis mayoral candidate Peter McLaughlin said the merger could save $4 million, one way he proposed finding more money for police.

McLaughlin said at the time he supported the merger "wholeheartedly," but has since received the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) endorsement. After the City Council's 8-5 vote that effectively killed the merger March 10, he declined comment.

Mayor R.T. Rybak, who is running for reelection, said he supported the Council's conclusion.

"The idea had some promise. The more scrutiny it got, the more it appeared there was significantly less savings than had been promised at first," he said. "I can understand why the Council wouldn't want to jeopardize the basic core of public safety."

Though city and county staff wanted more time to clarify a merger's efficiencies, a critical federal deadline forced the issue. The city had proposed spending $4.2 million in federal Homeland Security funds to upgrade its 911 computer dispatch system, a long-standing goal. A 911 merger with the county would make such spending unnecessary; however, the city only had until 4:30 p.m. March 11 to amend its plans and submit them to the federal government or lose $7.4 million over two years.

The Council vote left the upgrade in place, effectively killing the merger.

Voting no - in effect trying to keep merger discussions alive - were Council President Paul Ostrow (1st Ward), Paul Zerby (2nd Ward), Gary Schiff (9th Ward), Public Safety and Regulatory Services Committee Chair Dan Niziolek (10th Ward) and Barret Lane (13th Ward).

John Dejung, director of the Minneapolis Emergency Communications Center, said the city still is exploring whether merger talks would continue.

Ways and Means Chair Barb Johnson (4th Ward) led the effort to end merger talks. She said the city provided the service efficiently, and she was not convinced the merger would save money.

"Outsourcing is not a good idea," she said. The 911-dispatch system "is the backbone of the public safety system in this city."

Lane said he was not sure if he would support the merger or not, but he wanted to give staff more time to get the information the Council needed to have the policy discussion.

Full Council votes rarely include any public testimony, but Councilmembers gave 10 minutes each to AFSCME and the Hennepin County Sheriff's Office to discuss their concerns.

Ken Zeigler, a liquor licensing inspector and AFSCME representative, told the Council that the union had 65 jobs at stake and not been invited into the discussion. He called the merger savings "nebulous."

Ziegler raised concerns that county dispatchers would not know the city of Minneapolis as well the city's current 911 dispatchers.

"This is a takeover by the county on their terms," he said. "You have a system that works. You have dedicated employees. Please keep them."

Sheriff Pat McGowan assured the City Council that he was just as concerned about the safety of Minneapolis' citizens as he was about other county residents.

He said the merger talks came about because there was a hope for financial savings. The Hennepin County Sheriff's Office provides dispatch for 22 law enforcement agencies and 19 fire departments, "and we do it very well," the sheriff said.

"The people you represent, I represent," he said. "They are the same constituency. We want to be partners with the city of Minneapolis."

McLaughlin said during the December run-up to entering the mayor's race that Minneapolis taxpayers in effect paid for dispatch services twice, once for the city system and once for the county system.

The merger "is a way to free up, not once, but year after year, $4 million in resources, and move the city away from paying for dispatch twice," he said. "That is the kind of work that needs to be done."

Jim Niland, AFSCME's legislative and political director, said union members talked to Rybak and McLaughlin about the 911 Center merger issue during candidate screenings. Niland, a former Councilmember, downplayed any differences the union had with McLaughlin on the issue. He said the idea got as far as it did because people at the city and county were interested in exploring it.

McLaughlin "didn't make the pitch to us for why it [the merger] was a good idea," Niland said. "He said it was essentially in the city's court."