Sheriff Mike Haley talked about consolidating police dispatch centers while members of a regional committee listen. County Commissioner John Breternitz and Sparks Mayor Geno Martini (right) were among the listeners.

Consolidation, that all-purpose, cure-all solution that is inevitably proposed for government problems in the Truckee Meadows, could be a long way off if a meeting this week is any indication.

It was a gathering of the Shared Services Elected Officials Committee, one of innumerable government bodies in the valley, this one intended to help the elected officers stay in touch with each other on services that overlap Reno, Sparks or Washoe County and on consolidation proposals. There were indications that it doesn’t always work.

Reno City Councilmember Sharon Zadra at one point tried to raise the issue of the June 28 collapse of plans for a continuation of shared fire services of Reno and Washoe after the current partnership ends in 2012. County Commissioner John Breternitz put her off, but when another agenda item that was more on point to the fire issue came up, she had her say.

Zadra said the Reno Council was blindsided by Washoe’s withdrawal from the joint arrangement. It “came without any kind of explanation or advice or caveats” to explain why it happened, she said.

Breternitz responded, “I’m completely surprised that that decision came as a shock,” adding that the county had sent written communications to the Reno Council, debated the matter over a period of two years, and that Breternitz himself had been quoted on the possibility of ending the arrangement just days before it happened. He also said that under the terms being discussed at the end, the joint arrangement would not have saved the county money. “We can’t make it work under the terms proposed,” he said.

Sparks City Councilmember Ron Schmitt, apologizing for entering the discussion—Sparks is not a party to the shared fire services—urged Reno and Washoe to keep working on the disagreement. “Is there a process change that can be done quickly … to salvage this thing?” he asked. He said the whole purpose of the Shared Services Committee was to work out snarls like the fire disagreement. If an issue as major as fire services is not solved, he said, the committee as a tool for cooperation could be harmed. “I think this can set the tone for things for years to come.”

Another agenda item dealing with “direction to staff … regarding elements of consolidation” was more or less ignored. “I don’t know that we wouldn’t just be spinning our wheels” by trying to address that item in the face of the fire dispute, Zadra said.

Consolidation of police agency dispatch centers also seemed to be doing some wheel spinning. Anyone who thought the different police agencies might compete for the dispatch center would apparently be wrong.

Sheriff Mike Haley, saying he would like some guidance from the elected officials, told the committee that a dispatch center is a portentous project, including legally, and the valley’s officials might want to put some liability distance between the local governments and operation of a central dispatch by turning the job over to private enterprise. “I don’t think any of us [police agencies] want to run a dispatch center. … I think we ought to collectively hire someone outside to run a dispatch center.”

Later, Haley said, “Dispatch centers are one of the toughest things for any organization to run. They’re very difficult to run. The demands are high. The liability is high. And I’m basically advising the committee here that it’s something that we might not want to do directly. But we can’t do it individually, in my opinion, any longer because it’s too costly.”

He said agencies with dispatch centers include Reno and Sparks police, animal services, the highway patrol, Truckee Meadows Community College and University of Nevada agencies and his own department.

He said another reason that it might be good to have another entity handle the dispatch center is that historically the local enforcement agencies have not had such working arrangements.

“We don’t have a collaborative enough working relationship or a cost structure or a policy structure that would allow us to operate a dispatch center in a collaborative way,” he said.

Toward the end of his presentation to the committee, Haley said, “We all believe it’s achievable. We all believe it would be a safer environment.”

But Schmitt said he was concerned because he did not believe an important step in the process of dispatch consolidation had been taken—the studies to show that it would save money. Businesses do that kind of preparation, he said, and so should government.

“Is there a privately held center out there as a model?” he asked. Haley said he would try to get such information.

Schmitt said he was recently talking to a colleague at a professional conference who told him that consolidation of governments in Louisville, Ky, had been a fiasco. “The smaller communities are about to go under because of the cost of consolidation,” he said, saying that the Louisville consolidation “totally backfired.” Consolidations, he added, are full of unintended consequences.

(A post-consolidation study by the University of Louisville found, “Economic promises that were integral to institutional change have not materialized. Nevertheless, elites acted as if the promised boom had occurred and, in fact, behaved as though the local economy had exceeded economic expectations. … Our study raises doubt that city–county consolidation can enhance local economic development. Thus far we see no evidence showing benefits for premerged Louisville, and some of the data suggest it is worse off.”)

Schmitt told Haley the study was essential, though he expressed regret “because it’s going to cost money to get the study done.”

Breternitz agreed. He said he didn’t want to “get this done without knowing if it’s going to have a positive effect.”

Even on this, the fire issue came up. Reno Police Department Deputy Chief Mike Whan said the dispatch issue is affected by “consolidation of fire.”

Haley said that it might be well for “everybody to take a step back and give the new city manager some time” to take a look at the issue and express himself on the topic. Andrew Clinger, who last month jumped from the frying pan of being state budget director into the fire of being Reno city manager, was present at the meeting but did not speak.

There was also talk in the committee of merging functions of regional planning and regional transportation, a familiar proposal—so familiar that Sparks Mayor Geno Martini said, “Let’s put it to death or work with it. … I’m tired of discussing it.”

Dennis Myers was the news editor of the Reno News & Review. He was a journalist for more than four decades. In 1987-88 he was chief deputy secretary of state of Nevada. He was coauthor of Uniquely...