County offers to take over dispatch service for free

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SARASOTA COUNTY - It could be an offer they simply can't refuse: Sarasota County has put a deal on the table to take over emergency dispatch services for law enforcement in North Port, Venice, and Longboat Key.

County officials say they will do it at no cost to the cities. The only catch is the local governments don't have very long to decide on the offer.

The cities spend hundreds of thousands of dollars a year to staff their own emergency call takers. They soon might not have to. "It is a pretty enticing offer."  Venice for example has 9 positions at a cost of around $500,000 annually. City Manager Ed Lavalle says they're taking a hard look. "More than a half a million dollars a year. When you have a $20 million general operating budget it is quite a bit of money."

According to Sarasota County Fire Chief and Emergency Services head Mike Tobias, it just makes sense and should be a service they offer all residents. "With a unified system we are able to have more standard procedures in place. It gives us a larger pool of trained personnel to use."

An answer they need to know soon. The county is close to finalizing plans for a multimillion dollar Emergency Operations Center which will house dispatch. "Now would be the time for us to be able to design that center to be able to accommodate the increased space and technology needed."

When asked Monday Venice Police Chief Tom McNulty referred us to the city manager. In previous years he has expressed concern about losing his own dispatchers who know officers and the area well. Lavalle says it is a sticking point. "With having your own dispatch there is a sense of familiarity with streets and dead ends and particular nuances in the community."

Tobias says they already have a similar service. "We are already dispatching for the fire crews. It is not a giant leap to dispatch for law enforcement."

There is also the concern for the employees as well. Many have served their cities for years says Lavalle. "Are there jobs for them? Could they become dispatchers at the county?"

The county says they would need to hire some to keep up with the increased work load. Right now they say they already have nine unfilled positions. "We would be able to offer everyone the ability to apply for the positions."

The cities will also have to take a look at how much it could cost for things like radios, software, and book keeping upgrades to be compatible with the county. Lavalle says they need to have more discussions The city council ultimately making the decision. "There is the prospect of better efficiency and greater coverage."

Sarasota County has set a deadline. The cities have roughly 60 days left to give an answer.