05/10/09 — Wayne looking to utilize 911 funds

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Wayne looking to utilize 911 funds

By Steve Herring
Published in News on May 10, 2009 2:00 AM

Wayne County could have saved a million dollars or more and been in a better position to pay down its debt on a multi-million loan taken out to pay for a new communications system had the county been allowed to fully utilize 911 revenues, county officials said last week.

A state Senate bill that would expand how Wayne and Lincoln counties can use those revenues passed its second and third readings last week.

A House version of the bill, which does not include Wayne County, passed its first reading March 11 and was referred to the Public Utilities Committee, where it remains.

County Manager Lee Smith told commissioners during their Tuesday meeting that he had spoken with Democractic Sen. Don Davis of Greene County, who added Wayne to the bill that had been introduced by Sen. James Forrester, a Republican from the Gastonia area.

"The balance of 911 funds held by the state is huge," Smith told the commissioners. "There is money in there that was collected from taxpayers and we need to be able to use them for these emergency systems. I think it is getting a much more favorable look this year than it has in any previous years."

The county is in the process of accepting bids on a communications system expected to cost between $9 million and $10 million, most of which will be paid for through a bank loan. The project includes some 1,600 radios for all of the county's fire, rescue and law enforcement agencies.

Currently, revenues from providing 911 service can be used only for equipment needed to receive incoming calls, not for equipment needed for outgoing calls.

House Bill 1480 would create a committee to study expanding the use of 911 money. The bill passed its first reading and has been re-referred to the Finance Committee.

"Quite frankly, they already have a board to do that," Smith said in an interview. "Why would you need another committee? I think that it is a delaying tactic."

Under the Senate bill, the county could not use 911 revenues to pay for the lease or purchase of real estate, cosmetic remodeling of emergency dispatch centers, hiring or compensating telecommunications, or the purchase of mobile communications vehicles, ambulances, fire engines or other emergency vehicles.

It would allow for the funds to be used to lease, purchase or maintenance of emergency telephone equipment, including necessary computer hardware, database provisioning, addressing and non-recurring costs of establishing a 911 system.

It also could be used to lease or purchase an additional communications tower, a multi-site simulcast system, microwave connectivity between the sites, site monitoring and alarm system, base stations, and grounding and lightning protection.

Regarding other legislative issues, county attorney Borden Parker told commissioners that efforts are continuing to override a vehicle tax collection law that goes into effect next year.

"The county is losing money now. It is something that I think you don't want to get repealed," he said.

Loopholes in the existing law are being exploited by people to avoid paying their vehicle taxes, Parker said.

While the county property tax collection rate is in the upper 90th percentile range, vehicle collection rates remain in the mid-80s.

The new law would require people to pay the tax at the same time they renew their vehicle registration. Such a procedure should increase the collection rate to almost 100 percent, county tax officials have said.

Another measure being considered in the hallways of the legislature is one that would shift the cost of secondary road construction and maintenance from the state to counties. Wayne officials have said it could force commissioners to raise the tax rate by as much as 13-14 cents.

Commissioners have been adamant in their opposition to the idea.

Other legislation the county needs to remain aware of, Parker said, is collective bargaining for public employees and tort reform.

Parker called collective bargaining a "bad move" and said that the tort reform, while it appeared to cap elected officials' liability costs, actually opens them up to more liability.

Commissioner Jack Best called a bill regulating runoff in the Jordan Lake watershed "a very dangerous bill." Smith said the bill requires development near the lake to make costly retrofits even though the developments originally had been in compliance with existing rules.

"That is not fair to them and if they (legislators) will do it to them then you can expect they will do it to us," Smith said. "I am concerned it will spill over to nitrogen runoff."