Ind. city 911 center funding leads to protest march by library supporters
Hundreds of supporters of the library took to the streets to oppose a funding change that would take away income tax revenue from libraries and transportation agencies
By Caleb Bauer
South Bend Tribune, Ind.
SOUTH BEND, Ind. — Hundreds of people turned out in a march from the St. Joseph County Public Library to the County-City Building Thursday night, carrying signs in support of public libraries.
“Libraries are Lifelines,” read one sign held by library employee Erin Donaldson.
“Don’t lobotomize our library,” read another held amid people opposing a new funding model for the county 911 center.
The proposed funding change would take away some income tax revenue from libraries, towns, townships and transportation agencies.
The group of public library employees and patrons headed to an information meeting on the proposal after the public libraries closed early at 5 p.m. Thursday for a “Night Without Libraries.”
The meeting on the proposed funding change, which wouldn’t result in a tax increase but would pull from other entities expected tax draw, was hosted by the St. Joseph County Council, Mishawaka Common Council and South Bend Common Council.
The decision to change the way the 911 center is funded was precipitated by an “untenable financial situation” according to Commissioner Andy Kostielney, who serves as president of the three-member executive board for the 911 center. The other two members are Mishawaka Mayor Dave Wood and South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg.
The argument over how to fund the 911 center dates back more than five years ago when a new state law required counties to have no more than two Public Safety Answering Points (PSAP). In 2014, South Bend, Mishawaka and St. Joseph County entered into an interlocal agreement that split the cost of the consolidated center.
“The agreement five years ago was for the county to pay a portion, the city of South Bend to pay a portion and Mishawaka to pay a portion,” Kostielney said. “We do not have the financial resources to continue shouldering the entirety of that burden.”
This year, the interlocal agreement contains a “look-in” provision to reassess its status, according to county financial consultant Steve Dalton. According to Dalton, if there was no change to the way the program is funded, the interlocal agreement would remain in effect and the two municipalities and county would continue to fund the 911 center.
In early August, the executive board for the 911 center voted 2-0 to change the funding source by spinning off a portion of the county’s already collected income taxes that are distributed across taxing units (except public schools), to fund the center permanently. That vote was made by Wood and Kostielney, as Buttigieg was absent from the meeting.
But that move would see libraries, towns and townships lose substantial sums of expected tax money each year. For St. Joseph County Public Library, the hit would amount to nearly $500,000. For Clay Township, it would be $130,000, according to calculations.
That spurred opposition from library supporters and township trustees, who say it could have substantial impacts on their operations in 2020 without being offered a chance to provide input.
Thursday night’s meeting didn’t include any vote on the proposal and didn’t include public comment. Instead, officials offered details on the proposal and members from the three councils asked questions about its impact.
The shift of the cost for the 911 center, Dalton told the councils, would save St. Joseph County roughly $1.25 million, South Bend $318,000 and Mishawaka $639,000 annually.
“This is an attempt to have a funding mechanism that’s paid by every single citizen of St. Joseph County on their income tax bills,” Dalton said.
Members of the South Bend Common Council, including Council President Tim Scott and councilwoman Jo Broden, questioned if the 911 center is operating as intended, citing prior problems with dispatches and failures that mean calls from schools in the South Bend Community School Corporation previously routed first responders to the corporation’s headquarters.
The combined councils also discussed a few possible alternatives to instituting the change, including issuing grants to libraries to offset their costs or finding a way to phase in the change over multiple years. St. Joseph County Public Library director Deb Futa expressed reservation with the floated grant proposal, which she noted: “still will run out at some point.”
St. Joseph County Council member Robert Kruszynski Jr. also mentioned the importance of considering the impact the proposal will have on townships, some of which fund their own fire territories with income tax proceeds.
“In my mind, the townships are just as important as the libraries, because they’re performing public safety also,” Kruszynski said. “It’s got to have an impact on whatever they do.”
Mishawaka’s Mayor Dave Wood said the current model requires South Bend, Mishawaka and the county to play “a role that far exceeds was probably the budget of each could really sustain” and “bearing a larger burden” than other taxing entities for a service that is “vital” to citizens.
“We appreciate the fact that the libraries were able to close tonight so their staff and patrons could be here,” Wood said. “The 911 communication center can never close.”
©2019 the South Bend Tribune (South Bend, Ind.)