Lake Norman & Mooresville

Town rethinks dispatch center

Cornelius town commissioners will consider Monday whether the Police Department should continue operating its own dispatch center or contract with Charlotte-Mecklenburg police.

The town started its own dispatch center in 1992. A year later, Huntersville police partnered with Cornelius to operate the center.

The town of Davidson declined to participate and has partnered with the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department.

But in November, Huntersville police ended the partnership, effective this summer. Huntersville will partner with CMPD, which the town expects will save more than $1 million over five years.

The split means the dispatch center in Cornelius will receive $400,000 less per year.

It costs about $724,000 annually to run the dispatch center. Currently, Cornelius pays $364,000 and Huntersville pays $360,000.

Cornelius Chief Bence Hoyle estimated that Cornelius will pay $500,000 annually if it continues to operate without Huntersville.

Last week, Hoyle told commissioners about the pros and cons of both options.

"I'm going to recommend we stay the course," Hoyle said.

One of Hoyle's major concerns is that the level of service will fall should the town work with Charlotte.

CMPD is already stretched thin. Cornelius residents will likely wait longer for an officer to respond, said Hoyle.

He noted CMPD receives 25,000 more service calls in a month than Cornelius receives all year.

Plus, Charlotte police don't respond to as many types of incidents as Cornelius does, said Hoyle.

Residents are told to call Charlotte 311 instead of 911 for incidents like stolen property or a group home missing person report.

With its own dispatch center, Cornelius handles these incidents, said Hoyle.

Hoyle also told commissioners last week that the town won't be able to undo its decision should it contract with Charlotte.

"We have far more to lose," said Hoyle.

Right now, the Cornelius center is a Primary Public Safety Answering Point, meaning 911 calls go directly to the dispatch center instead of being routed from a main center elsewhere.

The designation also means the town receives state funding to operate the center.

Other municipalities that have their own PSAP include Charlotte.

In an effort to consolidate dispatch centers, state law prohibits primary PSAPs from reopening once they've closed.

If economy of scales is the main argument for partnering with CMPD, Hoyle said, the town will find the same problems that existed before Cornelius opened its own center.

Those problems include lack of control over quality of service and delays in response time .

"The 911 call center is the voice and first interaction many residents have with our Police Department," said Cornelius Mayor Jeff Tarte. "These are high quality people doing superb work for our community."

Regardless of which option the town chooses, Hoyle said, costs will increase as a result of the rapid population growth in recent years.

The town's population doubled between 2000 and 2010.

During that same time, the total dispatched calls and the total calls increased by 113 percent and 341 percent, respectively.

Hoyle said he plans to offset Huntersville's departure by expanding and restructuring the roles of the staff at the dispatch center.

Many commissioners said they'll need more information before they pass judgment.

"Our first responsibility is not to have a knee-jerk reaction that it will be too expensive to operate the 911 call center by ourselves," said Tarte.

Cornelius Commissioner David Gilroy said he wants to look at how much it will actually cost to own, operate and maintain a 911 center over the next five years.

"It will make no sense for Cornelius taxpayers to pay upwards of $600,000 to $1 million per year for a service that Davidson gets for free," said Gilroy.