07/26/05 — Officials say one dollar fee increase needed to maintain emergency 911 services

View Archive

Officials say one dollar fee increase needed to maintain emergency 911 services

By Barbara Arntsen
Published in News on July 26, 2005 1:50 PM

When Wayne County residents pay their monthly telephone bill, it's not likely that emergency 911 services is on their minds.

But a small portion of both land-line phone bills and cell-phone payments is used to maintain and expand the county's emergency management system.

Wayne County officials are proposing to increase that surcharge from 85 cents per month to $1.85 per month and will hold a public hearing on the issue at the county commissioners' meeting Aug. 2.

The fee increase is needed, officials say, in order for the county to properly maintain its emergency response system. The $1 increase would bring in an additional $400,000 annually.

The system is constantly in need of being upgraded, said Joe Gurley, the county's emergency services director. Advances in technology require the county to buy new equipment.

"We always have to maintain the current system," Gurley said. "The equipment is under a five-year contract, so in two years we'll be looking at doing an update."

Delbert Edwards, the county's telecommunications supervisor, said that the cost for just the dispatch equipment needed for the emergency services merger between city and county three years ago was $500,000.

"And as technology evolves, 911 evolves," Edwards said. "We're never 100 percent caught up because technology keeps changing."

Wayne receives about $465,000 each year in surcharge collections. Of that, Edwards said, the county pays a little over $200,000 back to Bell South annually.

"We have to pay, on a monthly basis, maintenance fees on 911 trunk lines, fees on dispatch equipment, the database information and infrastructure maintenance," he said. The rest of the money goes for maintaining call logging equipment, training and supplies.

Alarm systems, for businesses and residences, go into the system through administrative feed lines, Gurley explained, which also cost money.

"We have to have separate lines or those systems could tie up 911," he said.

In addition, the county also must fund radio emergency transmitter lines, and maintenance for an uninterrupted power source system.

"We have generators, but when the power goes off there is about a seven-second delay before the generators come on," Gurley said. "The uninterrupted power source keeps us from having power surges."

In addition to maintaining the existing 911 center, the dollar increase will help replace an outdated radio system that will meet national security requirements.

New federal requirements for narrower radio bands will be phased in over several years, Edwards said.

The proposed plan will also enable the county to meet the "95/95" standard. That means radio contact can be achieved in 95 percent of the county, 95 percent of the time.

The new plan would require five new transmitters in Goldsboro, Fremont, Seven Springs, Mount Olive and Grantham.

The upgrade will also meet the "P25" standard, a national protocol that's mandatory for national security projects.

Phone companies are saying that they don't want to collect the surcharge, and are suggesting that counties collect the money as an additional tax, Gurley said.

"There's a bill in the House proposing a 911 user fee that's assessed to the property owner," Gurley said. "But I think the current system is the fairest and most equitable way."

Adding to the problem is the decline of land-line telephone users. More and more people are turning to cell-phones, Gurley said. Cell-phone users pay the same fee as land-line users, but the money from cell-phone fees goes to the state, which only gives part of it back to the county.

"In 1990, we had 48,000 subscribers, and it peaked in 2000 at 70,000," Gurley said. "Now we have 43,000 and it's continuing to go down."

Nearly half of the emergency calls received by the county's 911 dispatch are from cellular customers, Gurley pointed out.

"We don't get all that money," Gurley said. "Thirty-nine percent of the surcharge is applied to 911, but that 39 percent is divided among the counties by population, not cell phone users."

Wayne gets about $160,000 annually from the wireless surcharge, and that money goes towards meeting federal requirements for cellular customers.

"One phase of the Wireless Act says that cellular phones have to transmit to the 911 center, within 90 meters of their location," Edwards said. "We have put the equipment and software in place; now we're waiting for the wireless companies. They should be ready by the end of the year."

Another problem is the increasing number of county residents who have turned to digital phone service through their Internet provider.

"And by FCC rules, because that's the Internet, we can't put surcharges on that bill," Gurley said. "But those phones can still dial 911."