Funding a 911 concern

LISBON – Funding for Columbiana County’s 911 service has dropped to where officials believe they are unable to continue helping the police departments with indirect dispatching expenses.

The first casualty of the new belt-tightening effort was the Salem Police Department’s request for $9,260 to upgrade its radio equipment, which was tabled for now by the county 911 committee at its recent meeting.

“That’s a fair amount of money, and funding is tight,” committee member Gary Williams said of Salem’s request.

The problem was explained at the outset of the meeting, when county Commissioner Tim Weigle pointed out the balance in the land-line account had dwindled to $106,525.

“If we keep on the track we’re on we’re going to be really slim on funds in three years,” he said.

The money for the land-line account comes from the 50 cents per land-line monthly tax approved by county voters in 2003. The other source of 911 funding comes from the 28 cent per month state tax levied against cell phone owners, with a portion of the money returned to counties based on population.

Both 911 taxes generated a combined $460,795 last year – $208,143 by the land-line tax and $252,652 by the cell phone tax.

The decline in the land-line revenue was expected, as more households drop their land-line phones in favor of cell phones. The number of land-lines in the county has dropped by more than half from 47,000 in 2004, when the tax first went into effect.

Meanwhile, funding generated by the wireless tax appears to have leveled off.

The wireless account currently has a $1.47 million balance, but by law it can only be spent on 911 equipment and software. Land-line tax revenue can be be spent on indirect 911 expenses, such as the radio dispatching equipment requested by Salem.

County 911 Director Bob Emmons sought to remedy the problem by recommending the committee transfer money from wireless account to the land-line account, only to learn from the county auditor that is improper.

Emmons said Salem’s new police chief, J.T. Panezott, had asked him for help in upgrading their radio equipment, something the 911 committee has done in the past for the county sheriff’s department and the East Palestine and Columbiana police departments using land-line revenue. Those three, along with East Liverpool and Salem, serve as dispatching centers, or PSAPs, under the county’s system, with all 911 calls being routed through their police departments.

Williams said their financial circumstances have changed to where the committee may no longer be able to help the PSAPs with indirect costs, such as radio equipment, which the police departments need for handling calls regardless of whether they serve as PSAPs.

“Up to this point we’ve been generous with the PSAPs and we’ve really done more than we probably should have. But the land-line money is drying up,” he said.

Highlandtown Fire Chief Jeremiah Cole, who is president of the county fire chiefs association, noted fire departments receive no 911 funding when upgrading or replacing their radio equipment.

“If Highlandtown’s radio goes down, we have to replace it” at our expense, he said.

Williams was asked after the meeting if the time might have come to abolish the system of five PSAPs, where the individual departments pay their own dispatching costs, and replacing it with a single county 911 PSAP to handle all of the calls.

“We could never do that because the overall cost would kill you. That’s why we did it this way,” he said, adding they estimated the cost of a single county PSAP would be about $1 million per year.

Emmons said they have to watch spending closely because the money will be needed when it comes time to upgrade the 911 system in four to five years in accordance with new technology standards being established by the state.

“That’s the real scary part,” he said.