Skip to content
Link copied to clipboard

Kenney and Nutter not unified on plan for 'unified' 911 center

The man soon to become Philadelphia's 99th mayor is not on board with one of the last initiatives of the 98th.

Philadelphia’s police 911 dispatch is in a dingy area of Police Headquarters at Eighth and Race Streets.
Philadelphia’s police 911 dispatch is in a dingy area of Police Headquarters at Eighth and Race Streets.Read moreCLEM MURRAY / Staff Photographer

The man soon to become Philadelphia's 99th mayor is not on board with one of the last initiatives of the 98th.

Mayor-elect Jim Kenney has asked the Nutter administration to delay plans to combine the city's 911 emergency dispatch systems and the 311 nonemergency call center under one roof in South Philadelphia.

The request comes as the administration is trying to finalize a 10-year lease agreement on space for a combined operation, dubbed the Unified Call Center, at 20th and Oregon Streets.

In a letter sent to Mayor Nutter on Nov. 20, Kenney said he had "significant concerns" about the cost of the new space and the availability of funds to pay for creating the center.

"I respectfully request that no contract be executed between the city and any other party for the purposes expressed," wrote Kenney, who assumes the top job Jan. 4. "My staff and I will review the proposal in January and determine whether to move forward with the project."

Everett Gillison, deputy mayor for public safety and Nutter's chief of staff, has been negotiating a deal to bring together under one roof police 911 dispatch, now in a dingy area of Police Headquarters at Eighth and Race Streets; fire 911 dispatch, now in the Fire Department's Spring Garden Street headquarters; and nonemergency 311, now in a call room in City Hall.

The total cost to lease the space, prepare it, and buy and install call-center equipment and software is projected at about $83 million. The city wants a lease with an option to buy, and Gillison is hoping to complete the deal before Nutter leaves office.

Gillison said he would brief the mayor-elect once he had final numbers and details in hand. Gillison said he, too, would be skeptical of a deal if he had not seen its specifics.

"The mayor has asked me to brief him, and I will," Gillison said of Kenney. "I'm sure we will have our way forward."

Nutter, through a spokesman, declined to rule out going ahead with a deal despite Kenney's concerns.

Gillison said that not only are the police and fire centers and the 311 unit in dilapidated spaces, but warranties on most of the equipment have expired.

He wants Defense Realty, landlord of the building where the call center would go, to pay for furniture and overhauling the space. He also is trying to negotiate yearly rent of no more than $3.5 million.

The building already houses the Delaware Valley Intelligence Center, created in 2013 with federal grants to provide a space where local, state, and federal law enforcement share information and analyze data.

Unifying the call centers is "part of the public-safety vision," Gillison said. "You can actually get a lot more bang for your buck by putting certain resources together and information-sharing."

Gillison, who began talks with the landlord after City Council gave approval in September to negotiate a lease, said the cost would be paid through a monthly 911 fee paid by cellphone users.

The city spends from $30 million to $35 million yearly to run the 911 system. The state covers about $20 million of that, but thanks to a 911 cellphone fee increase, the state is to provide between $7 million and $9 million more. Gillison wants that extra money to help pay for the new center.

Two state agencies still have to sign off. The Pennsylvania Emergency Management Agency would have to approve the use of 911 funds for capital improvements and lease payments, and, once a lease is drafted, the watchdog Pennsylvania Intergovernmental Cooperation Authority would have to approve the expenditure.

"We will end up doing what we need to do," Gillison said. "We have to first get a deal."

No one disputes that the existing call centers need help. Some computers are too old to be upgraded, and the furniture is so outdated that the manufacturer no longer makes replacement parts, so staff must nail desks and cubicles back together when things break.

During a recent tour of the police dispatch center, employees pointed to water-stained ceilings and crammed space. "Look at it," said Greg Picano, a 36-year dispatcher. "We can't fit a piece of paper in here. Everyone here is basically on top of one another."

In an interview Monday, Kenney said his request to delay the plan did not mean it would not go forward after he took over. He just wants to be the one to make the final decision on where 911 and 311 go.

"I understand their desire to get it done, and I appreciate their hard work," Kenney said. "It's just we're now responsible for a commitment they are making less than seven weeks out of the end of the administration."

Kenney said he knows 911 needs an upgrade, but he questioned moving it to South Philadelphia. He wondered whether it would make more sense to put 911 dispatch in the new police administration building at 46th and Market Streets in West Philadelphia. That $250 million project is scheduled to be completed in 2018.

No way, Gillison said. "There's no room for it. It was never supposed to be in there."

Gillison also argued that keeping the call center away from Police Headquarters makes sense for another reason: "To make sure assets are distributed," as Gillison put it, in the event of an attack on government buildings.

To make a smooth transition, Gillison wants the new call center to be up and running for at least a year before the new police administration building opens.

That would likely mean getting the call center opened by 2017 - a year after Kenney takes over.