The Forest Park Village Council grudgingly capitulated to a state mandate at Monday’s meeting, voting 4-1 to close its 911 center by next summer and join the West Suburban Consolidated Dispatch Center (WESCOM). Commissioner Rachell Entler cast the negative vote.
Gov. Bruce Rauner signed the consolidated dispatch law on June 29, 2015, after it was passed by the Illinois General Assembly earlier that year. The law requires municipalities throughout the state with populations of less than 25,000 to consolidate their dispatch operations by mid-2017 to reach that population number. With some communities, primarily downstate, without 911 centers, the law is seen as a first step toward universal 911 service statewide. However, Forest Park officials contend the law unfairly targets municipalities with established 911 centers, primarily in suburban Chicago, by forcing them to merge operations with other communities to create a center or join an existing center.
Prior to the vote and at the behest of Commissioner Tom Mannix, Mayor Anthony Calderone explained the village’s situation.
“We’re stuck in a predicament caused by a state of Illinois mandate that says we have to consolidate” 911 services, Calderone said, stressing that the vote to join WESCOM is the first of many actions that will take place before July.
“I thought it was important to let everybody know we basically have to do this because the General Assembly in their infinite wisdom has decided to just shove a mandate down our throats and just went ahead and did it,” Mannix added. “Our hands are truly tied on this issue.”
“I couldn’t have said it better myself,” Calderone responded. “They definitely jammed it down our throats.”
He went on to say that ignoring the mandate puts at risk the 911 funding the village receives from the state, which he termed “a really significant problem.”
Calderone said continued employment for the village’s 911 center staff is also a major concern.
“I don’t feel good about taking this action at all, mostly because of our employees who are our telecommunicators,” he said. “We will try hard to find employment for them but in this case we’re stuck.”
Calling it a “completely untenable scenario,” Mannix complained that the village would be unable to pay the dispatchers’ salaries without the 911 funding from the state.
Agreeing her vote was “kind of” symbolic, Entler said after the meeting that she does not agree with the state mandate.
“I know it’s something we have to do,” she said. “I do understand the nature of it, especially downstate.
“Small towns downstate don’t have 911. One town has it but the next town down the road doesn’t. Up here it’s not necessary. We’re required to cut jobs.”
Calderone explained after the meeting that he has met with the village’s 911 dispatchers to discuss “this crazy mandate the state has placed on us” and assure them he and other village officials will work toward their continued employment.
He said he anticipates WESCOM needing additional personnel once Forest Park joins the center but admits not all of the current village dispatchers are likely to be hired.
“I will personally advocate that they be given consideration,” he said.
Of the eight current dispatchers, one has already left.
Calderone said the village will have to “take the required steps” regarding the dispatchers, including terms of the union contract and state law.
“It doesn’t rest well with me, mostly because we have a very professional and dedicated group of telecommunicators,” he said. “That doesn’t make the process easy.
“I wish this wasn’t the case, but as mayor I cannot ignore the law.”
Village Administrator Tim Gillian, who will now serve as Forest Park’s representative on the WESCOM Board of Directors, said the financial impact is still to be determined. He anticipates it will take “several years” for the village to recoup its initial investment but hopes the annual expense of belonging to WESCOM will eventually be less than the cost of running a separate center.
Calderone and Gillian both said the village had investigated other shared dispatch operations, including joining North Riverside and Riverside, but determined that the best option was to join WESCOM, which oversees emergency requests for Oak Park, River Forest, Park Ridge and Elmwood Park.
Gillian said existing partnership agreements with Oak Park and River Forest was a factor in the decision, as was the fact that Forest Park shares a majority of boundaries with those villages.
The next step at the governmental level, according to Gillian, will be to create an intergovernmental agreement that all five municipalities will approve. At the administrative level, the next steps will involve Forest Park officials and WESCOM officials studying the operations of the two centers and making decisions regarding equipment, personnel and technology.