10/20/09 — County seeks state permission to use 911 fees for towers

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County seeks state permission to use 911 fees for towers

By Steve Herring
Published in News on October 20, 2009 1:46 PM

By the middle of next year Wayne County should be eligible to receive nearly $2 million in 911 fee revenues being held by the state. But under state law, the money won't be available for use by the county to help pay for its new $10 million communications system.

"If we have done everything that we are supposed to do and we follow the law, why are the people, the taxpayers of Wayne County who paid that fee, made to suffer by using property tax versus that fee that was collected?" County Manager Lee Smith asked in an interview this week.

"That fee is a tax that is now being collected by the state that is under full control by the state, which concerns me because I know what has happened in the past -- monies that have been taken over by the state soon get taken over and we never get it back. I am afraid of that. It gets held hostage and before you know it, you don't get it. So I am going to try to get what I can now."

Smith said he has explained the situation to state Sen. Don Davis and Rep. Efton Sager and every other legislator who would listen to him. He is hopeful the issue will come back before lawmakers when they reconvene in the spring.

"I know Mr. Sager and Mr. Davis in particular really worked on that for us so we are going to hit that hard again in the spring. There are monies that they (the state) are actually banking up through the state, collecting those monies that we can't use. Even thought they are available to us we can't use them because once we do the backroom (communications) equipment, which is an eligible project, there still will be money left.

"If it was collected by people in Wayne County and we have done all the things that we have need to do for the backroom equipment we ought to be able to use that money. So we are going to go and try to prove that case in the spring."

Current state law is written such that the money can be used for anything that brings a 911 call in, but it cannot be used on the outgoing side.

"We are saying that they are connected. That the 911 system is only as good as what comes in and goes out. If there is money available, we feel like we should be able to use that," Smith said. He said the problem is that some counties have misused their portion of the money.

"Don't punish the many for the mistakes of a few. Just monitor it," Smith said. "I know we have used the money properly."

During the past legislative session a 911 committee was appointed to review the legislation.

The League of Municipalities and N.C. Association of County Commissioners are part of the process. Smith said county officials had been told they would be kept up to date on the issue.

The committee is to report to legislators in the spring.

Appointing the committee stalled the process. However, Smith said he did not know if it was an intentional effort on the state's part to do so.

"I do know they are trying to find out from the private telephone companies on what they call Phase II for the switch from analog to digital if they have made all their upgrades because that is how all of the money was to have been used, plus backroom equipment," he said. "If all of those upgrades have been done, but now there is talk that these cell companies have more upgrade needs because technology is changing. Technology changes every single day. So when did somebody come up with that theory?

"The one thing I will agree with folks up in Raleigh is that the law is a little antiquated. Even though it is not that old when you say technology what does that mean? It has to be defined."

Meanwhile, the county has signed a $872,933 contract with Communications International to construct new radio towers in Mount Olive and Grantham in order to improve 911 communications within the county.

"Everything is on order and site work is expected to begin soon. I would expect within 30 days you'll see some movement in Mount Olive and in Grantham," Smith said.

The Mount Olive site is located behind Carver Cemetery off South Breazeale Avenue. The Grantham site is on U.S. 13 just east of Grantham School.

Smith said it probably would take four to six months to complete the tower work.

At the same time, the county is wrapping up the inventory for the some 1,600 radios that will be purchased for every fire department, emergency services and law enforcement unit in the county. Goldsboro is the final one, he said.

"I would hope, we are in pretty good shape by the end of 2010. It sounds like radios are fairly available. Once we get them, in we have to get some 1,600 radios installed in cars and we have to contract all of that out and get that done. That will hinge somewhat the schedules are for the various departments."