Chesterton Tribune

County officials say new state surcharges would not fully fund E911

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By JEFF SCHULTZ

Porter County officials worry they will not see the external help needed to operate the county’s Enhanced 911 system.

The County Council realized last fall that something needed to be done in order to keep the E-911 communications center from running in the red by more than $2 million per year after 2013, when rainy day funds are expected to dry up.

Believing that some relief would come from the state level, the council and the board of commissioners were eager to see state lawmakers raise the surcharge on cell phones for E-911 operations.

Throughout the 2012 General Assembly, lawmakers in both the House and Senate proposed several bills, including one drafted by State Rep. Ed Soliday, R-Valparaiso, but the one holding the most promise currently is Senate Bill 345 authored by State Senator Brandt Hershman, R-Buck Creek.

As it was originally drafted, SB 345 would impose a $1 monthly fee on all phones, wireless or land. Further parts have been authored by Soliday and local State Senators Karen Tallian, D-Portage, and Ed Charbonneau, R-Valparaiso.

On Thursday, SB 345 passed favorably out of the House’s Ways and Means committee. However, the committee dropped the across-the-board surcharge fee to $.75 per month meaning counties like Porter will have to dig deeper into their pockets in order to shore up funding.

“That’s not enough. It has to be higher,” said Porter County Commissioner President John Evans, R-North.

Emergency dispatch centers in every county around the state have lost millions as phone users have shifted from using landline phones to cell phones. Regular cell phone users current pay $.50 per month while landline fees generally range from $.40 to $3 which is set by the county. Porter County now has a $1.50 charge on landline phones.

County officials say they will want to know the precise amount they will receive from the state and then hold a joint meeting with the cities and towns on possibly revamping the system.

The Association of Indiana Counties said SB 345 would raise approximately $65 million on 7.1 million devices but up to $10 million of that money would automatically go to the state.

“It looks like we are going to be shorter than before,” said Council member Jim Polarek, R-4th, who serves as a liaison to the county’s E-911 communication center with fellow Council member Jeremy Rivas, D-2nd.

Rivas introduced a plan late last summer proposing that the county’s eleven municipalities use 10 percent of their annual county economic development income tax (CEDIT) dollars towards E-911 for this year, committing more than $1.1 million.

In the second part of his plan, Rivas said the E-911 budget could slowly be absorbed into the county’s general fund.

“It may be the only viable option we have,” said Rivas. “Our next step is to call all the cities and towns and lay it all out on the table.”

But Rivas also acknowledged the financial crunches that many of these municipalities are in. He still sees CEDIT money as a likely option since state law allows the money to be spent on operations like E-911.

“You’re not getting my vote for raising taxes. We already have an income tax and all we have to do is redistribute it,” said Rivas.

Council member Jim Biggs, R-1st, said the county also needs to look at its current situation with general dispatching which the county took over for Valparaiso in 2007 and Portage in 2009. He said the state only mandated counties to pick up E-911 emergency calls.

Because the Chesterton and Burns Harbor dispatch centers have not consolidated, residents in those towns are “woefully” paying a double E-911 fee for their dispatch centers and for the counties, Biggs said.

The legislation could also require the county to consolidate into one or two Public Safety Answering Points (PSAPs) and the county would need to agree where that center, or centers, would be placed.

“There is a lot to consider here,” said Biggs.

Portage Mayor James Snyder said he is unsure of what the future holds exactly for his 911 dispatching center as the city is currently focusing on immediate goals such as getting the Portage Police station open at all times. He said he would be willing to meet with the county once it has a better idea of which direction it wants to move with E-911.

“We need to see what the county is going to propose and what they’re working on before we can answer their concerns,” Snyder told the Tribune.

Valparaiso Mayor Jon Costas said he would be willing to talk with the county on finding a funding solution, but no one has approached him yet. He said he is aware of the county’s struggle to keep up with the growing expense of equipment and personnel.

Council member Sylvia Graham, D-at large, said the municipalities should give the county some reimbursement since the county took over Valparaiso and Portage 911 centers at no extra costs to the cities.

“If everyone is in the game, they should be a part of it,” she said.

Graham said every county in the state is seeing shortfalls in their E-911 budgets because of statutory requirements to consolidate and follow through on equipment upgrades. Therefore, the state should be willing to kick-in additional funding.

“It’s very important what the legislators do. They’ve got to give us all that they can,” she said. “I hope the legislators will come through and not disappoint the people they represent. 911 is for everybody.”

Evans said he believes there is still time to get state legislators to increase the surcharges before the General Assembly adjourns in mid-March and urged council members to keep reaching out.

Polarek said he doesn’t blame the state for Porter County’s dilemma since the commissioners agreed to take on all general dispatch calls for Portage and Valparaiso. He said if the cities took back their general dispatching, the county should have sufficient funding for their own E-911 calls.

“We’ll get it figured out. It’s one of those things where you don’t have a choice. You have got to take care of public safety,” said Polarek.

 

Posted 2/28/2012