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Thursday, February 7, 2013

Counties begin push to raise wireless phone fees to pay for 911

Posted By on Thu, Feb 7, 2013 at 9:46 AM

The Association of Arkansas Counties has distributed a news release that sets the stage for a push for increasing allowable fees on wireless phones to pay for county-operated 911 emergency phone centers. Fees are falling short as people give up landline phones for wireless. CORRECTION: I bungled the comparative costs originally. They are 65 cents per wireless phone per month, but 5 to 12 percent of the base rate for a landline per month, or, $2.40 if the rate is 5 percent on a $20 base rate.

The release says counties are spending $10 to $12 million statewide on 911 centers from general revenue in excess of user fees and costs are rising.

(Maybe Buddy Villines could share a little of Pulaski's road and bridge money, instead of painting that new bridge three colors.) More seriously, will the Arkansas legislature smile on phone fee increases in the new Republican era? Even for an emergency phone service? Complication: Additional money is likely to be sought this year, too, for Smart 911, a pilot project underway through a private contractor but without continuing funding.

News release follows:

When an Arkansas family strikes the numbers"9-1-1" on any phone, they deserve the confidence to know that capable communication systems and dispatchers are ready to jump into action directing emergency personnel, law enforcement officers or firefighters.

Dynamics such as decreased landline revenue and only incremental increases in the market's continued shift to wireless phones are the driving factors of inadequate funding in the state.

"911 was implemented in Arkansas to be self supportive," said Bud Gray, 911 director of North Little Rock Police. "911, today in Arkansas, is not self supportive as it should be."

Gray said a set fee on wireless for 911 funding worked well for a little while, but the time has come to alter 911 funding to stay in line with market trends.

Arkansas is one of the leading states where citizens eliminate their wireline and keep their wireless phone, according to Gray.

"The fees and taxes used to operate are not enough. Counties and Cities across Arkansas must dip into their general funds to fund their 911 centers," Gray said. "If this problem continues counties and cities may look at other measures and consolidate 911 centers. But it will not fix the problem of funding. The cost of the equipment used to operate 911 has quite possibly tripled. And with all the technology out there this is a trend that will continue."

The shortfall comes to bear in the county finances as most of Arkansas counties are supporting 911 operations with sizable county general fund appropriations.

Those county general appropriations total an estimated $10-12 million every year, according to an Association of Arkansas Counties (AAC) survey.

"Our 911 centers are in the red in almost all our counties," Chris Villines, AAC executive director, said. "Funding our 911 operations has become an increased challenge on the county level. The modernization of communications among our population has driven decreases in the revenue generated from 911 user fees based in fewerlandlines and more mobile phones. Dollars are generated on every landline and only cents on cell phones. That's one side; the other is that a more mobilephone based community costs more to provide 911 services. Emergency 911 services are caught in the middle of the modernization."

The survey confirmed a situation that most county judges across the state say they have managed, so far, to overcome in their own counties.

In 2013 Van Buren County projected the county general funds will have to supplement 911 by $62,000 which is actually on the low end of the spectrum in the state.

Last year, Van Buren County supplemented 911 with $25,000 of county general funds.

"Also, in the same time period the revenue received from the 911 user fee has decreased an average of $25,000 per year from 2008 levels," Van Buren County Judge Roger Hooper said. "When 911 was established, the landline phone numbers were close to 12,000 in numbers. Today, they are less than 8,000. We have no way at this time to determine the number of cell phones in the market."

911 calls from cell phones have increased from 60 percent in 2008 to approximately 80 percent of all calls in 2012 in Van Buren County.

"Our main concern is the amount of capital investment that we are projected to have to spend, in thenext five years for technological and normal replacement of communication equipment, plus hardware and software upgrades," Hooper said. "The total investment dollars is projected to be $350,000. This is why we need to look at increasing cell phone user fees to equal landline fees and to research the way the 911 systems are funded."

Currently the wireless user fee is 65 cents per phone per month while the wireline fee varies from 5 to 12 percent of the base rate.

In Randolph County, wireline revenues have dropped more than $20,000 in three years and cell phones now account for 60 percent of the calls made to 911.

"There is not another function of county government that is more important to the citizens of thecounty than our 911 centers," Randolph County Judge David Jansen said. "Our 911 centers are the lifeline for all citizens as well as our law enforcement, firefighters and emergency people. In the past, funding for 911 was established through landline phone services. With the cell phone age we are in now and everyone doing away with landlines, we are going to need to shift the funding from landline to cell phones or find other revenue sources."

Several counties face even deeper shortfalls in 911 funding and this topic will be a major area of discussion at the County Judges Association of Arkansas winter meeting in North Little Rock next week.

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