COLUMBIA — If voters approve Proposition 1, a proposed three-eighths-cent sales tax for 911 and emergency operations on the April 2 ballot, Boone County and 911 officials say they are prepared to start making changes the very next day.
Sheriff Dwayne Carey said staffing needs would be addressed by adding a few call-takers the day following the election, but he guesses it would take at least two years before Public Safety Joint Communications and the Office of Emergency Management are up and running in a new building. The commission would almost immediately seek bids from companies interested in designing the building.
Presiding Commissioner Dan Atwill said there's a chance that a company that specializes in designing 911 and emergency management centers may already have plans close to what officials are seeking. He said that would speed up the process but that the commission is obligated to choose the best bid in terms of quality and best price.
Local architect Simon Associates Inc. drew up rough designs for the facility, with an overall estimated cost of $11.3 million. The building would be constructed on Boone County's law enforcement campus on Roger I. Wilson Memorial Drive. It would be an earth-contact structure built into the slope of a hill.
Critical areas of the building, such as the the server and operations rooms, would be below ground, while office space would be exposed with windows to provide a nice working environment, architect John Simon said.
“Our approach is to kind of bury the structure, because we feel there’s some inherent safety by putting it underground rather than above ground, and we think we can save some money by approaching it that way, too,” Simon said.
Plans call for a building able to withstand an EF5 tornado. Carey said that in the event of a major disaster, the 911 center needs to be strong enough to be the last building standing.
“We’re still going to have a nice-looking administrative building that ties into the colors of the jail and the annex,” Carey said. “But the actual operations part of that we would need to keep up and going in an event will all be below ground.”
A radio tower and support buildings also are included in the plans.
Simon Associates created the schematic using a 2012 study that Brinkley Sargent Architects did for the city of Columbia. It assessed the space needs not only of Public Safety Joint Communications and the Office of Emergency Management but also of the Columbia Police Department.
The study recommended a new Public Safety Joint Communications and emergency management building. It also offered sketches of the interior components of a new facility: space for consoles, a locker room, a quiet room, a break room complete with appliances and plans for an Emergency Operations Center. The study estimated the entire project would cost $16 million. It included rough estimates of future space needs, too.
Simon said the study was used as a guideline to draft the interior configurations for the new building. He said the structures of similar facilities, such as those in Greene and Saline counties in Missouri and Johnson County in Kansas, were models that helped the firm arrive at cost estimates.
Carey, 911 operations manager Joe Piper and his staff, and Simon and his architects met over several weeks to rearrange the plan to be as efficient as possible.
“We just kind of played with the puzzle until Joe and his staff said, ‘Yeah, this would really work well for 911 and emergency management,’” Carey said.
Simon said the group tried to plan for growth by designing a building that would be large enough to accommodate 911 services for several years. His company got involved late last summer when Carey asked for help on the project. They did the work as a favor.
“It’s not good to say ‘no’ to the sheriff,” Simon said. “It’s kind of an interesting project, and we’re just trying to assist them in something that’s urgently needed in this area.”
The new building would be between the Boone County Jail and Sheriff's Department headquarters and an annex on the county property northeast of Columbia. It would be about 20,000 square feet. The operations room would be one-story underground, with the server room directly below it.
The dispatch center would share the building with the Emergency Operations Center, but the two would be separate. Carey said it would be an efficient setup because the emergency operations room would be ready to go with push-the-button power when a disaster hits.
The operations room would be large enough to double the amount of dispatch consoles to 16. A break area, quiet room, exercise room and four bunk rooms also are included in the plans.
Carey said the exercise room and sleep rooms aren’t excessive. He said employees working a 12-hour shift have higher morale and better health if they have the opportunity to get in quick workouts during their lunch breaks. That leads to less sick leave and turnover. In situations such as February’s snowstorms, workers need to stay for extended periods of time.
“They can actually go into a sleep room and get a five- or six-hour nap, they can get a 30-minute run, and it’s like they’ve gone home,” Carey said. “When they get back on that console, they have to be mentally prepared for that eight or 10 hours of taking those calls. There’s no fluff built into that plan.”
The spending breakdown for the ballot proposal estimates a total cost of $20 million for the building, new radio and other equipment and new information technology hardware and software.
Both Grass Roots Organizing and Keep Columbia Free have criticized the sales tax proposal, arguing that sales taxes are regressive because they put a heavier financial burden on low-income residents.
Both organizations also have said that the estimated $11.3 million cost of a new building — and the projected annual budget — is excessive. Annual operational costs are about $2.7 million now, but under the new plan, they are estimated to be about $8.7 million when the cost of retiring debt and keeping equipment up to do date is included. Both groups have said that 911 officials are simply asking for too much.
Grass Roots Organizing representative Mary Hussmann also has questioned why the $2.7 million currently allocated for 911 services from the city, the county and user agencies would be redirected to other uses without citizen input.
As it stands, Columbia operates the Joint Communications service, and only five of the 13 agencies that use it chip in to cover the cost. User agencies include the Columbia Police and Fire departments, the Boone County Sheriff's Department, hospital ambulance services and the two county fire districts.
The bulk of $2.7 million comes from the city of Columbia. If Proposition 1 is approved, its portion, $1.7 million, would go toward hiring more police and firefighters, Mike Matthes, the city manager, has said.
The county's portion — between $600,00 to $700,000 — would continue to go into joint communications.
The Southern Boone County Fire Protection District, which pays about $32,000 annually, and the Boone County Fire Protection District, which pays $125,000 annually, have not decided what actions they will take if Proposition 1 passes. Some early discussion hinted at discontinuing the tax.
Dave Dunford, a radio service specialist for Public Safety and Joint Communications, said he knew from the start that there would be opposition to the sales tax, especially with the rooms that some people might perceive as luxuries. He said county officials aren't looking for "Cadillac" buildings such as those in Greene and Johnson counties. He was referencing an editorial written by Columbia Daily Tribune publisher Hank Waters.
“We’re looking for an entry-level Buick, possibly an Impala Chevrolet,” Dunford said. “Once the shell of the structure is in place, all we’re asking for in technology is that these people with big hearts (be able to) do their jobs.”
The plan also calls for a new radio tower and equipment that would be housed in a small structure near the of the tower. It would simply be a replacement for the downtown radio site, he said.
Dunford has handled radio service planning for the 911 center for about nine years. He said the extra space and room to expand in the plan is necessary now, so that the “techno nerds” can work around the radio equipment and to meet Columbia's future technology needs.
He said that there will be a need for more technology centers that can serve as backup facilities for existing operations in and around Columbia and that the new 911 center could be available for this service.
“If you build it, they will come,” Dunford said. “If you build a radio tower, tenants will come.”
The Emergency Operations Center would have a small data center ideal for city Internet protocol backup, Dunford said. So in case there is a problem with the Daniel Boone City Building, the 911 center could take over.
“The plan, and it’s a very easy one, involves clever construction of conventional materials to build something where every step has backup to it,” Dunford said. “Backup electric, backup heating and cooling. If it fails, we put on Plan B.”
Dunford said the 911 center in Johnson County offers a convenient and useful layout that Boone County can learn from. Built in 2009, it's rated as EF4 tornado-proof.
The Johnson County Emergency Communication Center serves a population of more than 650,000, almost four times that of Boone County.
Steve Davidson, communications systems manager of the Johnson County facility, said a lack of space drove the need for a new building there. Operations were in the basement of the courthouse. Demand had grown, and there wasn’t room for expansion. Staff increases made the situation worse.
Davidson said the center has places for employees to bunk and exercise, as well. He said it was planned into the project from the start, and to him, these are a tiny bit of extra space within the big picture. Davidson said the construction of the Johnson County facility cost about $21 million and was paid through a capital improvement plan.
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