The Athens County Commissioners warned Tuesday that Nelsonville was breaching its 911 contract and could face litigation when the Nelsonville City Council voted last week to end its contract with county EMS dispatching.
Athens County Commissioner Lenny Eliason said during Tuesday’s Commissioners meeting that litigation against Nelsonville is a possibility because the city did not provide proper six-month notice in advance of canceling the project.
Last week, Nelsonville City Council voted to terminate their contract for 911 emergency services through the county, and voted to instead negotiate with Hocking College for a new contract.
“We have to make a decision and there could be some litigation involved,” Eliason said during the commissioner’s meeting.
Eliason said the commissioners will hold an executive session next week to decide their course of action with its legal counsel, Athens County Prosecutor Keller Blackburn. Eliason declined to provide further details on the course of action the commissioners may take.
Blackburn said he has “not had any communication with anyone” regarding the possibility of litigation.
Nelsonville City Council Member Greg Smith and City Manager Scott Frank dismissed the possibility of litigation against the city.
“They’ve got their panties in a bunch over something – I ain’t worried about it,” Smith said. “I guess that’s why we have lawyers.”
“Threatening legal action against Nelsonville is an empty threat,” Frank said in an email. “Nelsonville isn’t going to get bullied anymore.”
Eliason told The Athens Messenger the first official notice of their contract cancellation was when the Nelsonville Council voted on the issue last week.
In an email correspondence between Frank and Eliason on Jan. 4, 2021, a day prior to the Athens County Commissioners meeting, Frank requested the county commissioners formally terminate the contract.
Eliason stated the commissioners would vote during Tuesday’s meeting to terminate “according to the contract.”
Eliason expressed concern about the notice provided in an email.
“When is the contract up? I believe there is a six month notice period for cancellation. That would make the effective date July 1, 2021. Your thoughts?” Eliason wrote in the email.
Smith said the city provided ample notice when it began the trial period with Hocking College in late July. Frank said he also believes the city provided notice, and added he thought the new contract was a done deal.
Frank said he feels like the city is “being taken advantage of.”
“I’m under the impression they already voted to let us leave,” Frank said.
Eliason said Frank and Maynard discussed the issue and Nelsonville indicated it wished to continue the contract, although he did not confirm whether this discussion was documented. He maintained that the official notice of termination was on Jan. 4, 2021.
“Their indication to us was that they wanted to continue the contract,” Eliason said.
In response to that, Frank said “the plan was always to conduct a trial run with Hocking and if it didn’t work then we would stay with the county.”
On July 23, 2020, The Athens County Commissioners voted unanimously to authorize Interim 911 Director Aaron Maynard to “release the contract with the City of Nelsonville,” meeting minutes show. Additionally, the commissioners also unanimously voted to authorize Maynard to recompense Nelsonville for the months they were conducting their trial with Hocking College.
On July 30, 2020, the commissioners sent a letter to Nelsonville City Council informing them they had been notified that the council was considering switching 911 dispatching providers.
The letter states Maynard, Frank, and Nelsonville Police Chief Scott Fitch discussed the situation.
“It was tentatively agreed upon to allow The City of Nelsonville to be released from the dispatching contract with Athens County,” the letter stated.
However, later in the letter, the Commissioners warned of the consequences to Nelsonville if they leave the contract. The letter said if the city left the contract and decided they did not want to have dispatching serviced through Hocking College, they would need to renegotiate with the county.
“Frank advised city council that if the trial period would not work out through the end of the year, the worst-case scenario would be that you could return back to Athens County 9-1-1 communications as if nothing had changed, ‘No harm, no foul,’” the letter said. “This is simply not true.”
Athens County 911 Director Teresa Imler declined to comment on the possibility of litigation, and said she would wait to see what the commissioners determine.
911 dispatching services have been a continuing source of consternation for Nelsonville residents.
In 2004, Nelsonville negotiated a contract with the county to handle the city’s emergency 911 dispatching for around $48,000 per year, The Messenger previously reported. The new contract with Hocking College would include emergency and non-emergency dispatching.
Prior to the trial period with Hocking College, Nelsonville did not have a permanent non-emergency dispatcher to answer phone calls for nuisance complaints or the like. This would often lead to situations where callers would reach a voicemail, Smith told The Athens Messenger last week.
“When someone calls the police they don’t want to listen for the answering machine and get a call back, they want service now,” Smith said last week.
Frank described the previous level of service as “abysmal,” and said Nelsonville officers spent 100 hours last year correcting bad records, and said a stack of warrants was never put in the database. The ordinance passed by Nelsonville City Council last week authorizes Frank to negotiate up to $70,000 toward the new contract.
In an email correspondence between Maynard and Frank, Maynard quoted approximately $120,000 for a new contract that would include emergency and non-emergency dispatching services.
Maynard anticipated the dispatching center would process a volume of five to six thousand calls from Nelsonville per year if they negotiated with the city –meaning the cost would be around $20 dollars per phone call for Nelsonville residents.
According to an audit conducted by the City of Nelsonville, the city has paid $665,568.16 toward police dispatching services since 2005.
“I’m a citizen of Nelsonville as well, and I’m outraged that the amount of money has gone to dispatching instead of more important things like police officers, firefighters, more asphalt on the ground – we could have paved a lot of streets for $600K,” Frank said.
Frank added he believes the city should receive some compensation from the county for the years of contract fees for dispatching services.
“I think the commissioners should pay the City of Nelsonville,” Frank said.“I believe they owe us the money we are contributing.”
Nelsonville City Attorney Gary Hunter did not return requests for comment by publication time.