The 'Fort Report'
This week's show will feature Fort Wayne Urban League President Jonathan Ray, who will discuss the League's new charter school and the state of civil rights in Fort Wayne. The episode will premiere at 5:30 p.m. Saturday on Comcast Channel 57 and FiOS Channel 27 and later at www.news-sentinel.com.
When Fort Wayne and Allen County merged their emergency communications departments a couple of years ago, some hoped it might reduce expenses.
When the former City-County Building reopened this year after more than $4 million in renovations, it was touted as the community's public-safety hub.
But now, with the city-county 911 call center openly looking for a new home and a key deadline approaching fast, both of those expectations are in doubt – a possibility that should alarm officials and taxpayers alike.
Ironically, the “downsizing” of the departments and the recent purchase of a new $17 million emergency communications system have rendered the call center's current home in the basement of what is now the Edwin Rousseau Centre too small. “We have 5,600 square feet now but we'll need 8,000,” Director Tim Lee told County Council members earlier this month. Because individual employees are being trained to use a greater variety of equipment and because the new system is expected to require more room and electricity than the one it will replace, officials say, several new locations have been considered: hospitals, the former Kroger store on Spy Run and even the city's tallest building, One Summit Square.
Although the new equipment won't be installed until next March, County Commissioner Nelson Peters said officials should select a site within a month to ensure everything is ready on time. And as that search proceeds, it should be guided by a principle endorsed by Peters and Sheriff Ken Fries.
Taxpayers should not be asked to rent more space if buildings they already own can meet the center's needs.
Peters said an architectural analysis has determined that the county-owned Rousseau Center's basement could be enlarged for about $800,000 – a lot of money, yes, but a one-time expense.
“Our philosophy (when picking a site) has to be the question of whether we own or rent, and I won't agree to spend $100,000 a year to rent space, and I've even heard some people talk about $200,000 a year,” said Fries, who has consistently claimed consolidation would not improve service or cut costs. “We can't keep wasting taxpayers' money.”
Commissioner Therese Brown said it's still possible someone might be willing to provide space for the 911 center at little or no cost to the county. A hospital, for example, might waive rent in exchange for an agreement that the center would handle its dispatch calls. But for now, Lee said last week, hospitals' proposed rates have “been too high.”
In fairness, the decision to merge the 911 departments came after the city had already begun plans to move most of its offices to the new Citizens Square Building, which in turn led to renovations at the Rousseau Center. Even so, the possibility of paying rent in yet another building raises obvious questions about officials' planning – or lack of it.
Peters, for example, was critical of specifications for the new communications system that appeared to steer the contract to Motorola, which also made the current generation of radios. Could a competitor have provided a system that cost less or needed less space?
Could the city's $27 million Public Safety Academy accommodate the 911 center? Maybe, but it's off limits because it's too near the airport and the necessary towers might interfere with aviation, Lee said.
Brown and others, meanwhile, say security might be improved by moving the 911 center out of the Rousseau building so public safety wouldn't be concentrated in one place. But wasn't that the precisely what the renovations were supposed to promote?
Couple all of this with the fact that county dispatchers' salaries were raised to city levels following the merger and you begin to understand Fries' skepticism. But there's still time to make certain the decision protects both taxpayers' safety and their pocketbooks.
And if the choice costs more than $800,000, it's probably the wrong one.
Although I'd like to think my Saturday column was responsible for the long lines at the two local Chick-fil-A restaurants Wednesday, I must admit that former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee's call for a national “Chick-fil-A Appreciation Day probably deserves some of the credit, too.
The fast-food chain has been threatened by liberal politicians in several cities for its president's unapologetic support for traditional marriage and accused of promoting “hate” by gay-rights activists.
The people standing in line Wednesday looked happy, not hateful. But there were so many of them I couldn't wait around to show my support for free speech.
But at least it was “discount Whopper Wednesday” at Burger King.
Hope the vegans don't get mad.