Rod Sullivan, Supervisor, Johnson County, Iowa

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January 25, 2010

Sullivan’s Salvos 1/27/10

I have never before done a special edition of Sullivan’s Salvos. Unfortunately, extreme issues call for extreme measures.

In 25+ years of observing the local government scene, I have witnessed many things that disappointed me. Unfortunately, NOTHING I have seen has been as egregious as the management of the Joint Emergency Communications Center (JECC).

Some background… there are two E911 dispatch centers in Johnson County; one is run by and serves Iowa City, the other is run by Johnson County and serves everyone else. These are being replaced by a joint venture known as JECC.

Several years ago, a confluence of four events led to discussions that ended up in the creation of the JECC. First, the League of Women Voters pushed for consolidation. Second, the terrorist attacks on 9/11/01 demonstrated the importance of public safety agencies being able to communicate with each other. Thirdly, we had own local disaster (the tornado of ‘06) that demonstrated this need on a local level. Finally and most importantly, Iowa City needed to replace its radio system.

It was decided that the two dispatch centers would be combined into one, and every public safety agency in Johnson County would get new and compatible radios. Everything would be funded through a county property tax levy. An intergovernmental (28E) organization was formed, and a 7 member Board was created to oversee the JECC. Then things began to go down hill.

For starters, JECC should have been run by the Sheriff. Since every citizen in the County was paying for this thing, it made sense that an elected official accountable to every citizen have that responsibility. I made this case in E-mails to the JECC Board; I even attended a JECC meeting to make the case in person. I was promptly shut down, primarily by Councilor Bailey, who wanted to “maintain some control” for Iowa City. That “control” has cost you at least $5,000,000 in unnecessary money so far, with more to come!

I tried to explain that the Sheriff represents all the people of Iowa City. In fact, the Sheriff received 28,000 votes in just Iowa City in 2008; the most any City Council candidate has EVER received is 10,000. So people of Iowa City understand what the Sheriff does– their leaders do not.

I then went to a fallback position… if having the Sheriff run the JECC was unacceptable to Iowa City, then let the ICPD run the thing. This, too, was shut down.

Because the JECC Board chose this route, they needed to begin creating bureaucracy. They hired a Director at a hefty salary, which would have been unnecessary under either of my scenarios. And they did not stop there! The unnecessary Director needed an unnecessary Assistant Director. One justification for this is that the Assistant would also provide tech support. Another justification – and I am NOT making this up – is that he will be needed to provide backup when the first unnecessary person is on vacation!

What happens next? They hire an additional full-time tech support person. Never mind that: A) the software vendors are already charging outrageous fees for tech support; B) they said unnecessary guy #2 was a tech person; C) neither IC nor Johnson County currently have a tech person dedicated to dispatch – estimates are that 2-3 hours per week is required right now; D) both IC & Johnson County could provide the tech support on an hourly basis; E) local businesses could provide the support on an hourly basis.

It gets even worse. There is an “Operations Director”. What in God’s name does he do? There is ZERO justification.

Here is another. The JECC is a secure facility. You cannot just drive up, and you cannot get in. But in their wisdom, the JECC Board approved the funding for a receptionist. Who will this person receive? Your tax dollars at work!

The JECC has $20,000 budgeted to replace computer equipment. All the computer equipment is brand new! Can they really be serious? How about $60,000 for negotiations? Johnson County negotiates 6 different contracts with two different unions representing 350 people and it runs about $20,000.

It goes further. Each of three 8-hour shifts will have a “Lead Dispatcher”. This makes sense, but not given the bureaucracy already in place. The number of dispatchers is not being reduced through this consolidation; the number is actually increasing.

The Director even advertised one position before it was approved! And now that these positions have been approved? They will NEVER go away. We will pay unnecessary salaries until the end of time.

The building is too expensive. Stop out and see the three (yes, three) stainless steel refrigerators you bought.

The budget was already outrageous. Now they want to increase it by 28%. That is right… an already bloated budget is going up 28%! Johnson County required all our departments to maintain flat budgets (not including negotiated raises) for the second straight year. These folks answer to no one, so they increase budgets 28%!

Now for the real kicker. The JECC already has $5,000,000 of our tax dollars in reserve. Not only is that amount outrageous, they want $10,000,000! Ten million dollars! For what?

To give this some perspective, Johnson County runs an $80,000,000 annual operation with about $2 million in reserve. Granted, that is a little lower than we’d like. But I cannot imagine why these folks need to sit on 4+ years’ worth of operating revenue. You are being taxed a tremendous amount so they can save 5 times the total County reserves.

When asked about the amount already in reserve, the Board and staff claimed they did not know how much was there, nor how it could be spent. Is this oversight? Shouldn’t those questions be answered prior to a budget being submitted?

The finances of the JECC are completely out of control. And there is nothing the Board of Supervisors can do to stop it. We are contractually obligated to accept the number they put forth. Salvos readers – you know I am not some anti-tax zealot. I believe in government. Unfortunately, this initiative will give local government a bad name.

Who has been responsible for these decisions? Tom Salm, Mayor of North Liberty; Mike Wright and Regenia Bailey, Iowa City Council; Pat Harney, Johnson County Board of Supervisors; Dave Wilson, Emergency Management. All of the above are elected officials except Wilson, who is appointed by a 28E Board similar to the JECC Board. In addition, John Lundell, Coralville City Council, is a new member. Unfortunately, all his votes in his one meeting were for greater spending and greater bureaucracy.

Johnson County Sheriff Lonny Pulkrabek also serves on the Board, but we should definitely not lump the Sheriff with the others. Sheriff Pulkrabek has been on the correct (but losing) side of every important vote the JECC Board has taken, including two recent 6-1 votes. It is ironic, because he is the only member of the JECC Board who has ever run a dispatch center, yet his colleagues refuse to listen to his advice. Keep fighting the good fight, Sheriff!

I’m sure the rest of the JECC Board will tell you they are only doing what their high-priced consultants told them to do. Here is a news flash – the consultants are not elected to manage our money. They are.

There is more blame to go around. I am extremely disappointed in the League of Women Voters on this issue. (As a matter of full disclosure, I am a dues-paying member of the League.) The League got this thing started, then walked away. There is no governmental entity more deserving of scrutiny than JECC, yet the League has taken no interest in the way it is being run. As the premiere watchdog of government in Johnson County, the League has fallen asleep on this one. I urge the League to begin monitoring JECC meetings. I also urge the JECC Board to make audio recordings of their meetings. The minutes as they are done currently say NOTHING.

I am outraged. You should be outraged. So, what can we do? They already ignore everything I say and everything the Sheriff says. I see three options: A) contact these people, and let them know you expect them to run JECC differently. If they refuse, then B) we can look into dissolving the 28E agreement. This would be difficult and costly, but not as costly as allowing the JECC Board members to continue their spending habits. I really hope it does not come to this.

This whole situation is a shame. A very good initiative has spun out of control. I am still a believer in the theory of joint communications, but I cannot support it in practice the way we are doing it here. Please call these folks TODAY and let them know how you feel!

DID YOU KNOW? Audio recordings of Board meetings are available on the Auditor’s web page.

Anyone interested in learning more about County government should take a look at the County website-

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As always, feel free to contact me at 354-7199 or I look forward to serving you!



Anonymous Anonymous said...

Stay on it Rod... someone needs to be the watchdog of our money...

January 26, 2010 at 3:04 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Rod, you need to look at other jurisdictions. Joint emergency ops have not been too successful under the command of a sheriff or city EMA. The best performing EMAs in the country (San Diego, NYC, Tampa) are all top down county level independent agencies like the JECC. Take a look down at what St Louis County is doing with their joint board, and the reasons behind having a joint board.

As to the reserves, you are forgetting the FEMA spending requirements. You must spend out of your own funds, then get reimbursed by FEMA. No reserve funds, no FEMA reimbursement. I do think $10M is a little hefty for a county as small as Johnson County though.

I'm also curious why, with $2m in operating budget, your Emergency Management Performance Grant is only $41k. You are eligible for 50% of your planning operations budget.

January 28, 2010 at 10:38 AM  

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