Porter County is still in a jam when it comes to keeping its Enhanced 911
operating past 2014, but the county council believes the solution will
manifest with continued collaboration with the eleven municipalities.
About half of the county’s municipalities were represented for a special
discussion at Tuesday’s Council meeting to consider a direction for finding
a solution to overcome the more than $2 million in yearly losses anticipated
if no remedy is put in place by 2014.
State in need of
Local state Rep. Ed Soliday, R-Valparaiso, got the talk moving by outlining
to council members on where the state assembly is moving, or not moving, on
Soliday said lobbying for additional 911 money was heavy this year as all
counties are seeing facing deficits for their 911 dispatch centers.
“Porter County is not unique in struggling with this issue,” he said.
The state is appropriating $21 million more for county 911 operations
throughout Indiana’s 92 counties but is contemplating on how it will decide
to distribute the amount based on an assortment of variables including
county size and population, operating budget amounts and how fiscally
responsible a county is, Soliday said.
The state will take the previous three year average for phone surcharge fees
and set it as the minimum for how much will be appropriated for each county.
Porter can expect at least $1.6 million, the same it has been collecting
from landline and cell phone surcharges. However, whatever amounts may
follow will not be able to suffice for Porter County’s E-911 projected
budget of $3.6 million.
New legislation put the surcharges on cell phones and landlines at 90 cents
per month and 50 cents for every reload on prepaid cell phones.
Any additional money brought in, the state will take 10 percent and divide
it evenly to each county and the rest will be divvied up based on
Soliday said the newly formed state 911 board will have the option to raise
the monthly surcharges by 10 cents each year without needing prior approval
by the legislation.
Counties are required by Dec. 31, 2014, to consolidate their dispatching
centers to one Public Safety Answering Points (PSAPs) or else revenue from
phone fees will be withheld, Soliday said. Consolidating may be challenging
for a few counties such as Lake which currently has 19 PSAPs.
Disputes with telecommunication companies over surcharge amounts have
stifled progress as the companies are asking to see more empirical data from
the state assembly on how much it costs to run 911 dispatching centers.
Soliday said the state expects to have the data by summer 2013 and counties
can expect a more sophisticated funding formula once it is processed.
Soliday said it is not in his authority to decide how Porter County should
proceed but gave his opinion that the county should “go slow” since the
state is still moving on the issue.
“If you make a huge move, you are going to be reacting to us. And we (the
state) are not stable,” said Soliday.
Search for an
Council members thanked Soliday for his input but a few like Jim Biggs,
R-1st, felt the suggestion to wait could be detrimental and emphasized some
form of remedy should be immediately sought by resuming the original notion
of working on a funding plan with all municipalities.
“I think the answer is going to come through us,” he told the city and town
representatives present at the meeting. “Extending it out another year will
be a huge mistake.”
Council President Dan Whitten, D-at large, said many of the municipalities
have responded to the council’s cry saying they know the importance of 911
but currently do not have any funds available to pitch in. A letter from
Portage Mayor James Snyder expressed interest in taking back the city’s
general dispatching if the city had the financial means to do so.
Valparaiso City Council President Jan Dick from the floor said if his board
did hand over funds, cuts will have to be made somewhere in the city’s
Geof Benson, president of the Beverly Shores town council, said the town has
made “cut-by-cut” but he believes having a superior 911 system is needed to
uphold a high quality of life in the county and is worth the cost.
“When we call with an emergency, I want it to work,” said Benson. “If it
costs $2 million a year to spread out, then so be it.”
Chesterton Fire Chief Mike Orlich said 911 communication has improved
tremendously since E-911 Communications Director John Jokantas was hired in
fall of last year, calling it “probably the best move the county
commissioners have made in years in regards to public safety.” Biggs added
that part of the improvements is due to more personnel being brought on to
Present at the meeting, Jokantas said he is working on whittling down the
911 budget and asked the council not to make any personnel cuts since the
center’s staff number is now at what is considered the national standard for
With no formal commitment from the municipal entities, Whitten said the
decision on how to proceed is left up to the council. Council member Jeremy
Rivas, D-2nd, said county economic development income tax money (CEDIT)
money could play a role in a solution, as in the proposal he made last year
where municipalities could give a portion of their CEDIT earnings until the
county can absorb the E-911 budget into its general fund.
Questions came from council members as to what CEDIT money could be used
for, whether it be salaries or operational costs. Whitten said this year’s
budget hearings will start with a complete review of CEDIT fund projects to
get a better idea of how the money is being used and possibly find areas
where additional funds can be drawn from.
Council member Laura Blaney, D-at large, said the county commissioners’
approved an ordinance last week to use $1.2 million in extra undistributed
CEDIT money from the state, which will buy the county about a year extra to
come up with a remedy.
Rivas said to keep throwing out CEDIT money as a temporary fix is not a
viable solution and the solution needs to be long-term. He asked that the
county commissioners meet with Jokantas to work on a proposal that would
entail a funding source to meet recurring costs.
Sitting in the audience, County Commissioner Nancy Adams, R-Center, said she
would relay the request to the other commissioners. Whitten asked that the
proposal be made in time for the council’s budget hearings.
Meanwhile, Biggs recommended drawing up questionnaires for each municipality
to answer in regards to their budget and offer any input on how they would
like the county to proceed. He said working side-by-side with the
municipalities will be cost-effective.
Chesterton Town Manager Bernie Doyle welcomed the opportunity saying the
town will be willing to offer their advice to the county.
“We have a lot of years of expertise,” Doyle said.
Biggs told the Chesterton Tribune afterward the meeting there are
many “kinks” in the county’s 911 system that are in need of review such as
the fact that the county for over a decade has been providing service to a
few portions of Lake County free of charge. He feels it would be right to
have the county first “get its house in order” so it can start working
effectively with the municipalities.
Evans says it is
best to wait
Porter County Commissioner President John Evans, R-North, told the
Tribune this morning with the E-911 rainy day funds in the black until
2014, the county should wait to hear from the state in 2013 on its answer
for a permanent funding mechanism. He said leaving it up to the board of
commissioners to form a funding plan is a political move by the council
members and that coming up with a sufficient plan would be “impossible” not
knowing what the state will come up with in the future.
Evans said the council fails to take note of the improvements that have
transpired in the last year under Jokantas’ leadership. The commissioners
have been proactive in the improvements, he said, such as when the board
agreed to purchase new radio systems for several fire stations.
“We’ve got a department that’s doing a great job and we’re going to get it
funded,” Evans said.