06/07/07 — 911 bill worries county leaders

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911 bill worries county leaders

By Matthew Whittle
Published in News on June 7, 2007 1:47 PM

All year, the Wayne County Board of Commissioners has watched the state legislature with caution. On Tuesday, the latest bill to capture its attention is one to coordinate the state's enhanced 911 systems.

The concern locally is that the county will lose some of its ability to support its own 911 call center if the state takes over collecting the 911 fees and begins developing a comprehensive state plan.

"Those are local dollars to be spent locally. We're just afraid of losing control of that money," said county 911 supervisor Delbert Edwards. "There's a lot of questions about the bill nobody seems to be able to answer for us."

The biggest problem, County Manager Lee Smith pointed out, is that the new statewide rate for each wired line is 70 cents per month. The current rate in Wayne County is $1.85. Other counties have rates as low as 25 cents.

"We don't need $1.86, and we can't operate at $1.84. It's at $1.85 for a very specific reason," Edwards continued.

State Rep. Louis Pate, R-Wayne, explained that the difference will be made up through the inclusion of wireless customers in the 911 fee schedule -- an easier task to tackle from the state level, rather than the county.

In fact, he continued, that was really the motivation behind the bill, which has passed the House.

"I think primarily it's to bring in the wireless telephone patrons," Pate said. "The land lines are going down. People are just doing away with having wired telephones in their homes. I don't know about Wayne, but a lot of counties have suffered losses."

Smith, however, said that even though those numbers have dropped, they've begun to level off in recent years.

But, Pate said, "The counties aren't going to be losing any money from this.

"The counties will be held harmless. The way it was explained to us the counties will not be shortchanged in any way."

Appropriations for the counties will be made based on the revenues each received in fiscal year 2005-06.

"The counties will not get less than they received in 2006," Pate said.

Those appropriations will be made out of a new 911 fund controlled by a new 911 Emergency Locating Board. Of that fund, 47 percent will go to the counties and 53 percent will reimburse the wireless providers for their participation.

Any money not used by the counties will revert back to the board to be doled out later as individual grants.

And that is perhaps Edwards' biggest concern -- that with the county losing its ability to control those dollars, it will be harder to fund large capital projects.

"The bill is written to hold harmless, but there's no guarantee in the future that wouldn't change," he said. "The 911 center is technology driven and technology based, and with technology changing so rapidly, we have to be able to keep up with that."

The last system overhaul cost the county approximately $500,000 -- not including that year's regular operating expenses. Such renovations, Edwards said, ideally would happen every five to seven years.

Because of those unknowns, Smith told the commissioners that he is concerned that in the future, these changes could cause the county to have to increase its tax rate by one, two or even three cents to cover the costs of the 911 center.

Still, Pate said, with the North Carolina Association of County Commissioners, the telephone companies and others on board, the idea seems to be one that will benefit the entire state.

"This bill has been a long time coming," he said. "We just felt like this was the way to go."

But to county officials it's just another case of the legislature not listening to their concerns.

To them, it's the same story as on issues like the local option sales tax, which legislators have said is not likely, and Medicaid relief, which even though legislators have said is coming, most county officials are skeptical.

County officials also are worried about the Senate's potential action on the Solid Waste Act of 2007, which could drive up local tipping fees from $23 per ton to $35 per ton -- provided a provision requiring all future landfills to be double-lined is dropped as they have been told. If that stays in -- and currently it still is -- the current tipping fee could nearly double.

"The legislature has got to wake up and read these bills and realize they're killing us and killing the taxpayers. I'm not being critical, but there's so many bills, I'm just afraid of the things we don't know about," Smith said.