Members of the Williamson County Commissioners Court and emergency services officials have been discussing a proposal to have other entities who receive dispatch services from the county share in the cost for those services.

More than 20 noncounty agencies are dispatched through Williamson County Emergency Services. For the last couple of years, officials have been looking at ways for those entities to share the cost of emergency dispatch services and related technology, but the COVID-19 pandemic has stalled the initiative. Now, officials are resuming talks about ways to shoulder the load.

“Obviously, this is a mission-critical service, but as cities get to a certain size, my opinion is it would be appropriate for them to start contributing to the cost of those services,” Precinct 2 County Commissioner Cynthia Long said.

In fiscal year 2022, WCES dispatched more than 316,000 calls. Of those calls, more than 203,000 were sent to county departments and county-affiliated agencies, such as constable offices, county fire departments and EMS services. The remaining calls dispatched were for noncounty agencies, like police departments, school districts and city fire departments.

The operating budget for the county’s dispatch services is about $8.2 million, said WCES Senior Director Chris Connealy.

“That’s a significant cost and I firmly believe there should be some cost sharing here with the other non-county agencies that we serve,” he said.

According to the county, it will cost an estimated $25.14 per dispatched call in fiscal year 2023. Should the county enter into an agreement with area entities, they would pay for these costs. However, the county would phase in graduated payments over three years, so entities would not have to pay for the total cost in the first year.

To ease the burden for smaller agencies, Connealy said the first 2,500 calls dispatched for each of the agencies would be free. Based on fiscal year 2022 call volume, the new cost-sharing structure would result in around $2 million going back to the county, or roughly a quarter of the operating expenses.

According to Connealy, there is a critical need in WCES to separate call-taking duties—answering emergency and nonemergency calls to determine the level of response needed—from the job of radio dispatchers, who assign law enforcement to incidents created by the call takers. In many cases, Williamson County staff do both, Connealy said.

“That’s an impossible task,” he said. “We’re still doing it. We may have one call-taker on [radio dispatch] on each shift.”

For the FY 2024 county budget, Connealy said WCES will be asking for funding for 12 additional call takers, allowing for an additional three team members per shift. The proposed cost-sharing measure would help fund those new hires, he said.

Among the noncounty agencies with the largest call volume in 2022 were Hutto Police Department, with 34,613 calls for service; Liberty Hill Police Department, with 27,090 calls; and Round Rock ISD Police Department, with 16,359 calls. The next highest was the Leander Fire Department, with 4,375 calls.

County Judge Bill Gravell said the proposal would create “parity” between all of the municipalities the county serves, while also allowing for more funding to go to the county’s emergency communications expenses.

“We’re looking at future projects that we really can’t afford to put on hold, like four or five new radio towers at the expense of $3 [million]-$4 million a piece,” he said. “So the county continues to be forward leaning to make sure that we have the services for our public. This is drawing just a little more fairness between all that are involved.”