Boyle County governments ponder splitting from Danville for 911 service

By BEN KLEPPINGER and KENDRA PEEK

advocate@amnews.com

Boyle County, Perryville and Junction City are considering splitting from Danville’s 911 dispatch center and having their emergency calls handled by Bluegrass 911 in Garrard County, according to conversations at Thursday’s Perryville City Council meeting.

“About a week ago, we went to a meeting in Garrard County (and) met with Garrard County and Lincoln County,” Perryville Police Chief Parker Hatter said. “There’s been discussion going around that we could be going into dispatch with them. The county would be going — us, county fire, S.O. (sheriff’s office) — to join Garrard County and Lincoln County.”

Hatter said under the proposal, the Danville 911 call center “would be strictly for Danville Police and Danville Fire.”

“We’ll know more in the coming months,” he said.

Currently, Danville’s 911 center handles calls for all of Boyle County, including all three incorporated cities. Boyle County, Perryville and Junction City all provide some funding to Danville to cover the costs of the center. Danville, as the heaviest user of the 911 services, bears the majority of the cost.

Bluegrass 911 is a joint agency that handles 911 calls for Garrard and Lincoln counties; it is based in Lancaster.

Anthony Young, Perryville fire chief, said the meeting in Garrard County was very preliminary and held mainly so officials could introduce themselves to each other.

“I asked about the cost and we found out this was more of a meet-and-greet,” Young said. “I think more information will be forthcoming. We need to do our due diligence — this would be a breakaway from using the City of Danville.

“Anything we do right now is purely speculation. We need to see more before we get involved.”

Boyle County Judge-Executive Harold McKinney confirmed Friday that he and others are looking into the possibility of using Bluegrass 911.

“We have to look at where we can get the best service and keep our officers safe. We have looked at it. We took some first responders over there and let them look at it,” McKinney said. “Obviously, I have been in touch with the City of Danville. … Our first concern is the safety of our first responders — that’s our first concern. And our citizens, obviously … If we think we can meet that, then we have to look at what the legalities are for any sort of split-up.”

McKinney said officials are “taking this very carefully.”

“We obviously would have to do some legal research on funds … there’s a lot to do before the decision,” he said.

Danville City Manager Ron Scott said Friday that he has had some discussions with Boyle County Judge-Executive Harold McKinney about the possibility of combining Danville’s 911 service with Bluegrass 911, but he was not aware that the other two incorporated cities in Boyle County were involved in a discussion about splitting from Danville.

Danville is planning to schedule a visit to Bluegrass 911 to see how that operation works, and it has requested some statistics and information from Bluegrass 911. But “we have many questions at this point and are not far along that path,” Scott said.

“I’m not sure that the county can go separate from the City of Danville, nor the other cities,” Scott said. “There’s a lot of questions involved in terms of what the options may be.”

Scott said he believes it’s “premature” to be thinking that the 911 relationships in Boyle County could be eliminated.

A lot of changes for Danville’s 911 center are already in the works.

Danville is expecting to upgrade the entire center to next-generation equipment this year, allowing for the center to handle communications such as text messages and video calls. The changes could also include a relocation of the call center to Danville City Hall. The city expects to use 911-earmarked funds currently held by Boyle County to fund the upgrade, which has been roughly estimated at $500,000.

In addition, elected officials have been looking into adding “emergency medical dispatch” services, which would allow 911 dispatchers to give instructions to callers on how to initiate CPR, administer medicine or do other things to help someone having a medical emergency. Danville had initially budgeted $300,000 to implement EMD services this fiscal year, but cut those plans out at the last moment in order to reduce a payroll tax increase by one-tenth of a percent. Scott said at the time that it was doubtful the city could have fully implemented EMD services during the current fiscal year, anyway.

McKinney said “a lot of things” influenced the idea to split with Danville, including the fact that Bluegrass 911 already has EMD services in place.

Another factor: “I think that in the long haul, we’re going to be pushed into regionalization,” he said.

But the “driving force” behind the idea is “concerns” from first responders about how Danville’s 911 center currently operates, McKinney said.

“They have some concerns about how they’re being dispatched … about how often they’re status-checked, those sorts of things, and the priority that’s assigned to a call that’s coming in,” McKinney said.

Scott said Friday that while Bluegrass 911 provides EMD service currently, he doesn’t know whether it provides the next-generation services that Danville would add after its proposed upgrade this fall.

There are “a whole host” of issues and obstacles that complicate 911 mergers or splits, Scott added, including legal issues about whether splits would be allowed; and whether Bluegrass 911 has the capacity to handle the call volume from Boyle County.

Scott said the state legislature created incentives in 2016 for areas to merge 911 centers into regional hubs. That’s still something that’s on the table for Boyle and its neighboring counties, including Garrard and Lincoln — but, he said, he doesn’t know of anywhere in the country where a regional 911 center serving an urban area was based in a rural area.

“In my view, if we terminate our service here in Boyle County and Danville to our local citizens and have those emergency situations not handled by our local police department and our local fire department, we are probably going to be stepping down in terms of quality of service,” he said. “And we are probably also stepping up in terms of danger to first responders in terms of people handling those calls who are not … knowledgable about our local environment.”

Danville has long operated its 911 center without an “interlocal agreement” that would put in writing the financial responsibilities of the other local governments to help fund 911. Attempts were made years ago to draft an agreement, but it never happened. Earlier this year, officials said they were once again working on drafting an agreement.

Part of that agreement would likely deal with an estimated reserve of $700,000 in 911-earmarked funds that Boyle County currently holds. Those funds, which Danville expects to use for upgrading its 911 center, came from two sources:

• 911 fees on cell phones collected by the state and then distributed to Boyle County; and

• 911 landline fees collected by Boyle County through a local ordinance.

McKinney said Friday he doesn’t yet have an answer to what would happen to that $700,000 if Boyle split from Danville.

“We’ve got to cross the decision-making point of is it safe for our folks? And does it serve the people of this county?” McKinney said, adding that he has kept Danville apprised “at all times of what we’re doing.”

Asked if the preliminary discussions with Bluegrass 911 are affecting the plan to use the reserves for Danville’s 911 upgrade, McKinney said, “not right now.”

Those involved are exploring their options and “don’t want to burn bridges,” he said.

“I’ve kept Ron Scott aware of what we’re doing,” he said. “We’re going to be very careful about this.”

Scott said he believes all of the estimated $700,000 in reserves must be spent on Danville’s 911 center, because that was the 911 center servicing the area when the fees were collected from residents.

Scott said Kentucky law “clearly states” that the cell phone fees should be distributed to the agency running the 911 center, so the city believes they are currently being distributed “inappropriately” to Boyle County instead of Danville.

Danville plans to ask for all of the cell phone funds to be transferred to the city, Scott said. And the landline fees that Boyle County has collected through its local ordinance should also be spent on the Danville 911 center, he added.

“Those funds clearly belong to the 911 center,” he said. “What does not belong to the 911 center perhaps are future county landline fees that are collected by the county.”

McKinney said the next step for those considering the split will be to assemble first responders who visited Bluegrass 911 and ask them what they think — whether the change should be pursued or not.

“We are continually looking for better ways to serve the people of Boyle County,” he said. “And this is an example of that.”