County struggles to fund 911

Monday, May 7, 2007

BENTON, Mo. -- Scott County expects to transfer about $89,000 out of its general revenue this year to pay for its enhanced-911 call center. Next year that total could reach nearly $150,000, as reserve funds available for the call center have been entirely completed.

"General revenue can only support so much," said Scott County Presiding Commissioner Jamie Burger. "We're already transferring over $1 million for law enforcement, and we don't have that kind of cushion."

Over the past few years, Scott County, along with cities and counties throughout the state, have stood by helplessly as the funds to pay for their 911 call centers have steadily declined. Those call centers are paid for with money from a tax on landline phones, but as more users drop landline service and opt for wireless or VoIP technology, the tax base declines.

In Scott County those revenue dropped from $205,000 in 2005 to $178,000 in 2006. County officials have planned a slight increase in their 2007 budget -- up to $182,000 -- but Burger said $4,000 doesn't go far, and the general trend for phone tax revenue is downward.

The problems with Missouri's 911 systems are statewide -- recent studies have placed Missouri near the bottom of all states for 911 coverage and call tracking. Last month Gov. Matt Blunt called for a statewide reassessment of Missouri's 911 system and an exploration of consolidating and regionalizing services.

Consolidation and regionalization are both ideas that Scott County officials have talked about for some time. Last year the county discussed the possibility of consolidating its three 911 call centers -- a county-run center in Benton and two in Sikeston and Scott City run by those municipalities. Scott City expressed interest in the concept, but Sikeston declined to pursue the idea further.

What Sikeston would support is regionalizing its call center to take calls from a four-county area, said Sikeston Department of Public Safety chief Drew Juden. The counties covered would be Scott, Stoddard, New Madrid and Mississippi.

Juden said like Scott County, Sikeston is also experiencing budget shortfalls from the landline phone tax.

"Everybody struggles; everybody's got the same problem," Juden said. "Missouri is the last state to embrace the idea of taking tax money from cell phone subscribers."

In recent years, Sikeston has transferred about $500,000 from other areas of its budget to pay for its 911 center's operation, Juden said.

In Cape Girardeau County the budget crunch hasn't arrived yet, but it will in future years, said Ruth Ann Dickerson, a member of the county's e-911 board of directors. Landline phone taxes are delivered to local 911 operations quarterly, and Dickerson said those tax revenue decline by about $5,000 each quarter.

Legislation fixing the 911 system has been a priority for the Missouri Association of Counties, a Jefferson City group that lobbies the state on behalf of county governments.

"For most counties across the state, this would rank very, very high on their list of priorities, if not right at the very top," said association director Dick Burke. "We have to get something done here. It's bleeding us dry, and it's only getting worse."

Bills were introduced in the Missouri House of Representatives this year to address the cell phone taxing issue, Burke said, but they weren't voted on.

Fixing the 911 funding system is definitely a top priority in Scott County. This year Scott County has already spent $58,000 in 911 reserve funds that were carried over from last year. Those funds are now gone, and next year that money will have to come from general revenue, Burger said.

msanders@semissourian.com

335-6611, extension 182

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