NM 911 center struggles with population, cell phones

Funding and staffing have not matched the increase in call volume, according to officials

By Diana M. Alba
The Las Cruces Sun-News

LAS CRUCES, N.M. — Too few staff and a too-small, aging building have created what one official described as a "crisis" situation with the county-city 911 call center.

Indeed, center Director Hugo Costa said calls to the center and dispatches made to local law enforcement and emergency personnel have increased dramatically in recent years. However, funding — and hence staffing — hasn't kept pace.

"Since 2003, the number of 911 calls coming in has increased 70 percent, and the number of dispatches about 50 percent," said Costa, who heads the Mesilla Valley Regional Dispatch Authority. "So we're really, really busy."

Behind the trend is an increase in population, a spike in cell phone use — for instance, more people call the center for a vehicle crash than before cell phone use was commonplace — and growth in local law enforcement agencies, officials said.

Monday, a group met to look at options for improvements, including a possible sales tax increase.

According to numbers, staffing at the 911 center has increased from 28 in 2003 to 35 now. Meanwhile, national standards indicate that as many as 55 personnel should staff the facility, officials said.

Quick response to people's emergencies is at risk because of the center's inadequacies, said Dona Ana County Sheriff Todd Garrison, also a member of the center's governing board. He noted the center is doing the best job it can with its limited resources, but agreed that it's understaffed.

"When people are put on hold or officers are put on hold and needing assistance, those kinds of things could cause problems," he said. "The city and county are going to have to pay attention to that sooner or later before something serious does happen."

County Undersheriff Chuck Franco complained loudly in 2006 about the center's service, including that residents were being placed on hold too long when calling the center and that officers were being dispatched to the wrong locations or given inadequate information. He threatened to seek an arrangement with the New Mexico State University Police Department to handle county law enforcement dispatching. Garrison said the service has improved since then, because chronic vacancies at the center have been filled.

In addition to a staff shortage, Costa said the 5,375-square-foot 911 center building, located near Lohman Avenue and Main Street, is out of space to expand operations. Built in 1960 as a bank, it's also not equipped to handle the electrical load needed for a call center, said Adolf Zubia, former Las Cruces fire chief and chairman of a panel looking at ways to fund 911 center improvements. Plus, he said, the structure is located on a small lot that doesn't offer good "perimeter" security, and it's in a flood zone.

Zubia's nine-member panel presented findings to the 911 center board Monday morning, recommending that a certain sales tax — called the County Emergency Communications and Emergency Medical and Behavioral Health Services Gross Receipts Tax — be implemented to pay for improved operations. The center needs about $6 million annually; it received $2.6 million in the 2009-10 year, mostly from the city and county general funds.

Zubia also advised that a second sales tax be implemented or a bond be issued to buy land for or lease a new building. Were officials to construct a new facility themselves, as opposed to leasing, the estimated cost would be about $6.15 million. Another $3.42 million would be needed to carry out the complex move into a new facility.

But the proposal for a sales tax increase — a measure that eventually would have to go before voters — already has stirred some controversy.

Dona Ana County officials have floated the idea of a combining a sales tax referendum for mental health care at the county jail, along with the proposed increase for 911 center operations. County administrators have delayed moving forward with the proposal, until hearing recommendations from the 911 center task force, which had been working independently.

City Councilor Dolores Connor, also a member of the 911 center's board, emphasized Monday that the proposal for a sales tax increase to benefit call center operations was unrelated to the county's idea of using sales tax revenue to fund mental health care at the detention center.

"This kind of got lumped into it as part of what the task force was doing, but never intended, from our study or our group, to combine them," she said.

Connor said more research must be done about a new dispatch center building and said movement toward a referendum is still a long ways off.

But County Commissioner Scott Krahling, also a 911 center board member, contended the two issues aren't separate.

"I don't think it's accurate to present it as if they're not related because it's the same gross receipts tax," he said. "And the county is considering using this gross receipts tax to fund its needs at the detention center."

Zubia said he's concerned that combining the two will cause voters to shoot down the 911 center measure.

The sales tax proposed to pay for operations at the jail and 911 center is not available for construction, only operations, Costa said. There is a separate sales tax available to the county for capital improvements.

The 911 center board decided to look for funding to hire a professional consultant, who'd look further into what would be needed for a new building.

911 call center statistics in 2009
Phone calls from the public: 349,500
Non-emergency: 227,971
911: 121,529
Dispatches: 329,005
Law enforcement: 270,534
Fire department: 37,071
Emergency Medical: 21,400

Source: Mesilla Valley Regional Dispatch Authority

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