Opponents of a proposed merger of emergency dispatch services across Sarpy and Douglas counties appear to be organizing behind a Facebook page created last week.
That page, Keep Sarpy County 911 Center, received hundreds of Facebook “likes” within the first two days, reaching more than a thousand users in the first 48 hours. The page had more than 1,900 followers as of Monday morning.
An administrator of the Facebook page declined to give an interview to the Papillion Times or to identify who is behind the page. But that administrator, in a Facebook message to the Times, said the group would name a spokesperson and that it was not created by a Sarpy County employee.
“This page has been created for you to show support for the Sarpy County 911 center,” according to the page’s first available post on Feb. 17.
The page’s description states the Keep Sarpy County 911 Center page was created to advocate against a proposed merger with the Douglas County 911 Center, a plan that is still in the works with a public announcement expected sometime this spring.
The Facebook page urges its members to call their elected officials in city and county governments.
“Unless the citizens of Sarpy County speak up the department will be partially or completely liquidated and shut down,” the description states. “If you believe that your LOCAL county 911 center is worth more than an outsource contract, like this page and spread the word!”
The group created a hashtag for Twitter users — “#savesarpy911”— and several followers of the page have changed their Facebook profile picture to reflect that same message. In another post on the page, however, users were invited to express opinions both for and against the merger.
Sarpy County Administrator Mark Wayne said dispatchers are covered by a contract and civil service regulations. The current contract is in effect through June 30, and, if a merger is announced, how that might work could be a topic for contract negotiations, he said.
“It’s still exploratory right now,” Wayne said. “We did meet with the employees to let them know that no decision is really imminent right now.”
Wayne said if a merger did happen, it would be unlikely to take place immediately because Douglas County is looking to build a new 911 dispatch facility that wouldn’t be completed until 2016 at the earliest. But beyond that, he said there are too many variables and options in play so it is hard to give any definitive details.
Many posts on the Keep Sarpy County 911 Center page make clear that personal opinions are being expressed and that Facebook users are not speaking for their employers or representing Sarpy County’s opinion. Most of the views expressed on the page raise doubts about how little information has been announced or are critical of merging the dispatch centers.
La Vista Mayor Doug Kindig said residents will see that merging the two counties’s 911 centers is the right thing to do when the “whole story” comes out — that is, after a proposal is actually brought forward to the public with the justification for its approval.
Kindig said officials will be certain public safety is not compromised. He said a study by the University of Nebraska-Lincoln commissioned by the local governments said a merger could save taxpayers millions of dollars, and he said the study’s findings have not been challenged by any of the officials who have been meeting to work out the details of a proposal.
“The people who are involved in this need to say yes or no,” Kindig said. “This is coming to a head within the next 30 days.”
If the proposal goes forward, the county boards of Sarpy and Douglas counties would vote on a contract. The city councils of Bellevue, Papillion, La Vista, Gretna and Springfield would all then have to approve agreements with Sarpy County before a merger could happen.
The Keep Sarpy County 911 Center page drew an endorsement online from the Springfield Volunteer Fire and Rescue Department Auxiliary, which is made up of spouses who work to help raise funds to purchase equipment for the volunteer fire department that its budget cannot cover.
The Louisville Volunteer Fire Department in Cass County also shared a link, and Sarpy County Register of Deeds Lloyd Dowding has chimed in on the Facebook page to show his support.
“Sarpy County 911 Center is a first class, professional operation,” he posted on the page Thursday evening. “While I am fortunate to not have had to call for assistance, I feel very safe knowing that when and if that time comes, our Sarpy County 911 Center will be there for me and my family.”
Dowding told the Papillion Times he had no political agenda, but he doubts that a merger with Douglas County would be to the benefit of Sarpy County residents.
“I was simply making a statement that I think they do one helluva good job,” he said. “Everyone always has ideas. They want to merge, or cut or do away with, and I just hear it as posturing for the most part, because it never seems to work.”
Valerie Lutz, the wife of the Springfield fire chief and an administrator on the Springfield Volunteer Fire and Rescue Department Auxiliary’s Facebook page, said she posted “We support the Sarpy County 911 Center!” on Feb. 18 because she wanted to support the Sarpy County dispatchers.
She said she didn’t poll the group’s members, but she said the dispatchers work closely with the husbands of the women who make up the auxiliary. The auxiliary is independent of the Springfield Volunteer Fire Department, which would be impacted by any changes to 911 dispatching.
“I posted that just to share to support,” Lutz said. “We have also personal friends who work for dispatch.”
On a personal level, Lutz said she is concerned about the Sarpy County dispatchers losing their jobs, but she is also worried about how much money already leaves Sarpy County into Douglas County, such as through the Learning Community’s common levy.
“My personal feeling is too much of Sarpy County‘s money is going to Douglas County,” she said. “I’m concerned that if dispatch is centralized in Douglas County, how that is going to affect what the cities have to pay for 911 service?”
Moreover, Lutz said that cost savings has been identified for the two counties as a whole, but she wants to know how much it will cost and save each city, as well as whether new radios or other expenses might be passed along to fire and police departments.
Beyond financial concerns, Lutz said she is worried that customer service for residents of Sarpy County might also be negatively affected by a merger.
“There are people who are on Sarpy County’s dispatch who are also on volunteer (fire) departments,” she said. “I think that leads to a better customer service and a better camaraderie between dispatch and our fire departments. “
Answers to Lutz’s questions aren’t known in large part because a proposal has not yet been made public. Kindig, the La Vista mayor, said the time for officials to take public action is now.
“It is time to make a decision,” Kindig said. “We need to move forward.”