Leftover money collected by Lincoln’s sunsetted quarter-cent sales tax for public safety projects could help to hasten the city’s police and fire response times, officials said last week.
Just more than $2 million remains unspent from the three-year, quarter-cent sales tax approved to help build four new fire stations, including a joint police and fire station, and update the city’s public safety radio system.
Revenues from the specially designated sales tax were $38 million.
The extra money has been the subject of debate since early 2018, when city officials discovered sales tax collections were exceeding projections.
With new fire engines hitting the streets, ‘fire apparatus crisis’ resolved, Lincoln mayor says
City officials, however, didn’t seek to end the sales tax early because construction costs were rising as contractors were building the new fire stations.
A debate ensued over whether to spend the additional funds on new fire equipment to replace aging rigs, saving it for future radio system replacement or adding back features cut from the construction plans for the new fire stations.
A committee overseeing the use of the sales tax money recommended in August that the city spend the remaining funds for upgrades to the police and fire dispatch system.
“We have had periods of outages because the technology is getting old,” Police Chief Jeff Bliemeister said. “It’s critical (computer-aided dispatch) be active and in service.”
Currently, when someone calls 911, the call taker types information being relayed to them and the computer system transmits that information to the dispatcher, who assigns the call to the available fire or police personnel.
The computer-aided dispatch system also transmits the information to the computers police have in their cruisers.
Lucky dog rides with Lincoln police to start new program with shelters
A mapping function available through computer-aided dispatch technology but not being used currently because of the city’s antiquated system could show officers or fire crews the fastest way to get to a call, Bliemeister said.
And an upgrade would allow the city to utilize software that alerts the dispatcher to the closest available unit to a call, the police chief said.
In August, city officials projected the overall cost of upgrading the computer-aided dispatch system at $1.7 million.
Bliemeister said the city is in negotiations with the system provider and plans to use hardware and support from the city’s Information Services department to help reduce the cost of the upgrades.
Also, the city hopes to secure a $700,000 grant from the Nebraska Public Service Commission, Bliemeister said.
Lincoln’s fire and police chiefs briefed the City Council last week on the prospective purchase, saying no new tax money would be needed to complete the upgrade.
The council, however, would ultimately have to approve the upgrade, since it’s likely to involve a large, multiyear contract.
“Our (computer-aided dispatch) is junk,” Lincoln Firefighters Association President Adam Schrunk said. “No doubt about it.”
But city firefighters oppose prioritizing the dispatch system for leftover sales tax revenue, Schrunk said.
While building the new fire stations, the fire department cut out back-up generators at the stations, a first for the city’s firehouses, and security fencing around the employee parking lots there, Schrunk said.
All any thief needs to do is monitor a smartphone app to see when a fire station’s crews get called out and their vehicles and belongings are exposed, he said.
Fencing around the lot provides peace of mind, Schrunk said.
But members of the public safety projects oversight committee worried the fencing could make the stations less welcoming to the community.
City officials have estimated the fencing costs at between $300,000 and $400,000, but Schrunk said he believes the city could get fencing for less.
Jennifer Brinkman, chief of staff to Mayor Leirion Gaylor Baird, said officials believe the city can pay for both.
“The Citizen Oversight Committee has recommended that the (computer-aided dispatch) update and additional station improvements be eligible for funding from the remaining revenue attributable to the Public Safety Sales Tax,” Brinkman said in a statement. “Our administration is supportive of that recommendation and believe that each of them align with what the voters approved.”
Timing matters for these fire station improvements, Schrunk said.
“If we don’t do them with the money the taxpayers approved, we’ll never do them,” Schrunk said.