Chesterton Tribune

E911 landline phone surcharge called unfair to seniors

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By AL BODIE

At Tuesday’s Porter County Council meeting, members were told that increasing the surcharge collected from landline phone customers would not provide a long term fix for the ongoing budget woes of the county’s E911 center.

Leading the discussion of funding fixes for the centralized center, County Commissioner John Evans, R-North, told council members that he no longer favored an increased surcharge on landline phone bills because of the rapid decline in the number of landline customers.

Evans said that customers are abandoning their landline service in favor of cellphones.

Although this switch provides customers more mobility, it means less money for the E911 operations. Cellphone E911 fees are 50 cents as compared to $1.50 for landlines.

As a further proof of this trend, he said that many new homes do not even have phone jacks installed. However, Evans noted that older residents are staying with conventional landline phone service.

“Senior citizens make up the largest segment of the population not going to cellphone service. Any increase on landline phones would not generate enough funding and would impact a group we do not want to burden.”

Although the county is able to increase landline E911 surcharges, cell phone surcharges fall under the state’s jurisdiction.

Evans wants the Council to consider lobbying legislators to increase E911 cellphone surcharges from 50 cents to $1 dollar. Not only would Porter County benefit from this increase, so would all other Indiana counties.

“The proper place for an increase is on cell phones not on the backs of our senior citizens” Evans said.

Evans said that the financial woes of the E911 system started when the former Bethlehem Steel declared bankruptcy and continued with the more recent consolidation of Portage and Valpariso E911 operations into the County’s E911 center. This added to the center’s workload, and the consolidations upped the number of dispatchers from 22 to 32. An additional 10 employees are now needed.

County Council Member Jim Biggs, R-Chesterton, believes that no financial thought or planning went into the consolidations. He said that someone should have thought about how to pay for the increased manpower and needed space. Biggs also used the opportunity to criticize the Commissioners for blaming current interim E911 Director Dave Sheibels for some of the center’s problems.

“I do not believe it was Shiebels fault.”

Evans responded that he (Evans) was ”likewise not at fault.”

Biggs praised Sheibels’ dedication and performance throughout his 14 years as the center’s first and only director. “Don’t you think by now, if he was doing such a bad job, action would have been taken?”

At the Commissioners’ last meeting it was announced that Sheibels was going to become the center’s interim director until his replacement can be found.

Opposing this move Biggs said, “ I will not be party to a group making him the fall guy.”

The Commissioners’ move to seek Sheibels’ replacement came as result of a recommendation made by REM Services of Lansing Illinois, a contracted consulting firm specializing in public safety issues. REM completed a two-month study of the E911 operations and based its findings in part on interviews of dispatchers who currently work under Sheibels.

“These are employees who were moved from other centers, where they were comfortable, to the county’s center where they are paid less and expected to meet increased workloads,” Biggs said. “Anybody who was placed in the same position would not speak highly of management.”

Biggs, who holds a master’s degree in public safety administration, says that he knows and respects the consultants but does not believe REM should have conducted employee interviews.

Biggs told the Chesterton Tribune that the process of consolidating Portage and Valparaiso E911 centers was done without any thought about how the merger was going to be financed. “Portage and Valparaiso saved a lot of money, but did not contribute any of these savings to (pay for) the increased workload of the county’s center.”

Evans attended the Council meeting to ask for approval of an appropriation request to transfer $4 million of excess levy revenue as a short-term bailout of the E911 budget for 2011 and into 2012.

The Council approved Evans’ request and will consider long-term solutions of the E911 funding.

 

Posted 4/27/2011