Chesterton Tribune

State lawmakers hope to come to the aid of county in E911 funding crisis

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State Rep. Ed Soliday, R-Valparaiso, said he is “80 percent confident” a legislation piece will pass out of the General Assembly to provide the additional funding Indiana counties need to run their 911 dispatching centers or Public Safety Answering Points (PSAPs).

County officials around the state, including Porter, are contacting legislators, asking them to modify the way the state collects fees charged to phone users. PSAPs are facing shortfalls due to the increasing use of cell phones over traditional landline phones. Surcharges for landlines range from 39 cents to $3 per month by counties (Porter’s is $1.50 per month).

A handful of bills addressing the funding issue have been drafted in both the state house and the senate, but it wasn’t until this week that one made it out of committee hearings and to the full senate. Senate Bill 345, authored by State Sen. Brandt Hershman, R-Wheatfield, passed 7-2 out of the senate’s Tax and Fiscal Policy committee on Tuesday.

SB 345 currently eyes imposing an across-the-board fee of $1 for all phones and would establish a new state 911 board in charge of distributing funds. It would also require counties to have only one dispatch center.

Soliday, who has a background in public safety, has crafted a 911 bill of his own, HB 1263, which he says is still a work in progress. He expects the bill to receive a committee vote by the end of the week.

Soliday’s bill varies from SB 345 in that it does not propose a blanket fee across the state. Instead it gives the counties more internal control.

HB 1263, as it exists now, says landlines, wireless and prepaid wireless fees would be imposed by county ordinance which would establish a monthly rate not to exceed $2 on all three formats.

As of today, the state 911 board is responsible for cell phone surcharges and currently sets the rate at 50 cents per month while county governments decide the amount to set on landlines.

If passed, HB 1263 would take effect next year and would sunset in 2019 due to likely advances in technology.

Soliday said he is collaborating with fellow lawmakers and hearing testimony to make HB 1263 as favorable as possible.

“We want a solution and so we are trying to find common ground. But (the bill is) moving. We’ve put a lot of interest in it,” said Soliday.

But the some counties are opposing the bill saying their 911 centers would require more money than the $2 monthly fee would raise.

“Not everybody is going to get what they want. It can’t be done. But we’ve got good bills to work with in the house and the senate,” Soliday said.

County Council Looks For Local Solution

On Tuesday, the Porter County Council expressed its own concerns about the possible ramifications if the legislature fails to pass a law to increase fee collections.

Council members said they have spoken with Soliday, State Senator Ed Charbonneau, R-Valparaiso, and State Senator Karen Tallian, D-Ogden Dunes, who understand the urgency and are making efforts to pass legislation.

“We hope the state changes the formula,” said Council President Dan Whitten, D-at large. “It could or would be an eventual backbreaker for (the county) if we can’t maintain public safety.”

The 2012 Enhanced 911 budget for Porter County reached about $4 million for a total figure and has nearly exhausted monies in the county’s reserve funds specifically for the department.

As a short-term solution, the county placed an additional $4 million in rainy day funds to carry the system through 2013.

After that, the county’s E-911 would be seeing shortfalls of more than $2 million per year if nothing is changed.

Council member Jim Biggs, R-1st, believes part of the challenge in funding Porter County E-911 is due to the fact the county commissioners jumped the gun in consolidating with Valparaiso’s 911 dispatching centers in 2007, a year before the state legislature passed a law requiring dispatch centers throughout the county be consolidated into two PSAPs by the end of 2014.

The county took over for all of Valparaiso’s general dispatch (non-emergency) calls instead of opting to handle just emergency PSAP calls which were the only type the consolidation bill was requiring counties to pick up, Biggs said. Since the county absorbed Portage later in 2009, the county has hired 21 additional dispatchers.

Biggs also stated the commissioners never approached the council at any time to establish a way to keep the centers from running in the red.

Whitten, who was in office at the time of consolidations, backed Biggs’ claims that the commissioners did not bring up the consolidations to the council when they signed off on them, but insisted E-911 must be fully funded.

“No one in their right mind is going to turn their back on public safety,” Whitten said.

Biggs said he has been told by the Association of Indiana Counties that even if the current surcharge fees were to be quadrupled, it still would not be enough to cover the full expense.

Whitten proposed holding a meeting with all municipalities within the county to figure out a local solution for covering E-911 costs. Other council members such as Jeremy Rivas, D-2nd, have pitched ideas to involve cities and towns for additional funding.

Rivas has suggested the county pick up the tab for the employee health benefits and come up with a formula to have the county and municipalities fund operations using county income tax dollars.

Whitten contends the forced consolidation was a move by state lawmakers to place another unfunded mandate on counties.

Council member Laura Blaney, D-at large, said all counties in the state are facing the same dilemma.



Posted 1/26/2012