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New technology hurts Oktibbeha 911 budget

 

Tim Pratt

 

STARKVILLE -- With more people relying on cell phones and other means of communication instead of traditional land lines, the Oktibbeha County E-911 dispatch center has found itself in a financial bind. 

 


Funding for E-911 comes from a $1 surcharge added each month to all residential phone bills in the county, Oktibbeha County Emergency Management Director Jim Britt said. The dispatch center also gets $2 a month from every business land line. 

 


But E-911 only gets 70 cents of every dollar surcharged to cell phone bills in the county. The state Commercial Mobile Radio Services Board gets the remaining 30 cents. 

 


To make matters worse for the Oktibbeha County E-911 center, the 70-cent cell phone surcharge goes to the emergency call center where the customer is based. A student who comes to Mississippi State University from Jackson, for example, would still pay his or her cell phone bill in Jackson, so the 70-cent surcharge would go to Jackson, not Oktibbeha County''s E-911 center. 

 


With so many students and their cell phones arriving every year at MSU, Oktibbeha County is seeing less and less use of land lines which, in turn, means fewer and fewer dollars to E-911. 

 


Five years ago, one of the first things a Mississippi State student would do when arriving in Starkville was set up a local phone line in their house or apartment, Oktibbeha County Administrator Don Posey said. 

 


"Nowadays they don''t do that," Posey said. "They just set up their electric and their cable. Their cell phone is on their hip. So that dollar goes to wherever they purchased that cell phone. We''ve steadily been losing that dollar over a period of the last five or six years." 

 


The dispatch center is down about $7,500 per month in 911 fees compared to five years ago, Posey said. The E-911 center''s budget this year is roughly $675,000, Britt said. 

 


"It''s reached a critical point now," Posey said. "We have to find some way to increase those funds." 

 


Britt estimates the county loses 2,000-3,000 land lines per year as people switch to cell phones and Voiceover Internet Protocol service. With VoIP service, which allows people to talk over an Internet connection, counties don''t receive any surcharges. 

 


"It''s a very serious situation," Britt said. "It''s almost gotten to the point where, if something broke, we wouldn''t be able to fix it." 

 


The cost of equipment has continued to rise, Britt said, but revenues are falling. And the E-911 center is receiving more calls these days than ever before. 

 


When E-911 opened eight years ago, it received between 600-800 calls per month, Britt said. This year, from January to March, E-911 received more than 15,000 calls, which averaged out to more than 5,000 per month. 

 


According to Britt, E-911 has done nearly everything it can to cut costs. He said he''s spoken with other emergency management directors around the state and everyone seems to be facing the same problem with less revenue and higher operating costs. 

 


"Every 911 director in the state that I know of is stretching that dollar pretty thin," Britt said. 

 


At least one effort has been made in the Mississippi Capitol to increase surcharges on phone bills, but the measure died in committee, Britt said. The Mississippi 911 Coordinators Association and Mississippi Association of Supervisors also have pushed for the state to look into the surcharge issue and floundering 911 centers. 

 


"I''m just very disturbed the state Legislature hasn''t done anything to help with the situation," Britt said. "You''ve got to have 911."

 

 

 

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Reader Comments

Article Comment Jeff M commented at 4/22/2009 4:24:00 PM:

Simple solution to the funding problem. Fund 911 the same way as police depts and fire depts are funded - through a mix of property tax and Business & Occupation (B&O) tax. Stop relying on an archaic funding model tied to "phones". It's only going to get worse.

It may have been more "fair" 10 years ago to fund 911 from phone lines, when there were still a significant minority who never tried to dial 911. But now 911 is an expectation (like police or fire) regardless of where the phone line is "located". So just drop the per-line funding model (and all the associated overhead), and balance it with a slight increase in property and B&O taxes.

 

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