GARNER | Hancock County’s proposed 28E agreement for the Communication Center is drawing criticism from the cities it serves.
The agreement, which was presented to the county supervisors Monday, Jan. 7, is the county’s response to the one proposed by the cities in December.
“What this piece of paper in front of us does is holds us to an agreement that does nothing that we asked for yet has extreme penalties should you not follow through on it,” Britt Mayor Ryan Arndorfer said during the City Council meeting Tuesday, Jan. 8. “I take this paper right here ... as a slap in the face to the cities of Hancock County.”
The county’s response was emailed and mailed to the eight cities for further discussion after the supervisors reviewed — and OK’d — it during their weekly board meeting.
Its content was the culmination of discussions had between Communications Director Andy Buffington, County Attorney Blake Norman and Supervisor Jerry Tlach, who is also board chair.
“We basically gutted it,” Buffington said.
In December, Garner City Administrator Randy Lansing presented a draft 28E agreement to the County Board the county’s cities, with the exception of Kanawha, backed.
The agreement has been in the works since the cities of Britt, Garner, Kanawha and Klemme expressed concerns over Hancock County’s decision to increase their communication center fees over a three-year period.
“There are some concerns in there, but we’re working toward an agreement,” said Lansing, who noted the Garner City Council will review the proposed agreement during its Jan. 22 meeting. “I’m pretty sure we can get there with just a few changes.”
The Hancock County’s agreement removed the physical address of the Communication Center, which is located in the Hancock County Public Safety Center in Garner; the cap on the Communication Center’s annual budget increase; and how its portion of the budget would be paid.
The county pays for its portion of the communications budget using the general basic fund that all residents — both rural and city — pay taxes into.
The cities want the county to pay for its portion of the communications budget through the rural basic fund, where taxes are collected on all taxable property not within incorporated areas of the county for services used, like road clearing, sanitary disposal projects and more.
But Buffington said the way the county currently does it is “more equitable” based on cost-per-capita numbers calculated by Norman for its rural and city residents.
Norman said despite the cities’ claim their residents are being taxed twice through the general fund, they aren’t paying twice as much. In fact, the city residents’ cost-per-capita is nearly half that of rural residents because of the valuations.
“I follow their logic, but I don’t know how cities can sell that to our taxpayers,” Lansing said.
But perhaps the most concerning condition in Hancock County’s proposed agreement to members of the Britt City Council — and Buffington — was the one outlining how cities that defaulted on their Communication Center payments would be punished.
According to the county’s proposed 28E agreement, cities have 90 days to remedy their default, and if they don’t, the county will terminate law enforcement services for non-life threatening emergencies, like barking dogs and other noise complaints, and forward those calls to the mayor — something that used to be done in Winnebago County.
After six months of default, the county may terminate all dispatching services, the agreement states.
“I’m quite honestly disappointed that this is in here, and I think it’s legally irresponsible, however, I’m not an attorney,” Arndorfer said.
Tlach said the condition protects the cities that pay their bills.
“There have been a few cities that have not paid, and it’s not fair to Garner or Corwith, who’ve always paid, that the one that doesn’t pay is getting a free ride,” he said.
Norman said Hancock County has no statutory requirement to offer dispatching services to the cities. Cities are responsible for providing law enforcement and fire protection within their communities.
“I’m upset about it, but I understand that they need to have some sort of teeth to it,” Buffington said. “I’ve been upfront to them that’s not an order from my bosses I can fulfill, and I understand that might mean my employment and that’s fine. Ethically, I can’t do that. We’re not in the business of deciding who gets help and who doesn’t get help.”
The county’s agreement did have at least one condition Arndorfer and Lansing found favorable and that was cities over 500 would pay 20 percent of the Communication Center budget multiplied by its population, while smaller cities would pay 15 percent. The larger cities requested 25 percent; they’re currently paying 35 percent.
“I don’t want the supervisors to think that I think they’re coming after us, yet I think there was not a lot of warm, fuzzy feelings coming from this 28E agreement,” Arndorfer said.
Lansing said he was confident the cities and the county could still reach an agreement with language they could “agree with and live with.”