Expenses impacting 911 system

LISBON -The day is coming when finances could dictate the Columbiana County 911 system be consolidated into a single dispatching center, which may not sit well with the four other police departments that currently take 911 calls.

County Commissioner Tim Weigle told the 911 committee last week they should begin exploring consolidation of the five dispatching centers as a way to save money.

“I know no one wants to give up their (dispatching center). I get that, but to be honest, I don’t think we can continue to sustain all of the expense,” he said.

Under the plan approved in the early 2000s by communities representing the majority of residents, 911 calls are answered at the county sheriff’s office and the Salem, East Liverpool, Columbiana and East Palestine police departments, based on geographic boundaries. Each department continues to pay the salaries of their dispatchers, with the 911 committee using its funds to purchase 911 equipment, make system upgrades and cover maintenance agreements for the dispatching centers.

This approach was believed to be cheaper than if there was a single county 911 dispatching center to take all of the calls, staffed by dispatchers whose wages and benefits would be paid with 911 funds.

The 911 system gets its funding from a 50-cent per land line tax county voters agreed to pay in the early 2000s. The other source of funding is a 25 cent per month state wireless tax paid by cell phone subscribers.

Weigle said the problem is land line revenue has plummeted from $660,861 in 2004 to just $208,143 last year. The tax has generated $143,940 to date in 2013.

The reason is obvious: “The people who have cell phones are getting rid of their wire lines … People don’t want to pay two bills,” he said.

The other problem is funding generated by the cell phone tax appears to be leveling off at about $250,000 a year, likely because the county population declined from the 2000 census to 2010 and is likely to continue doing so. The cell tax revenue is distributed by the state based on county population, not on the number of cell phone subscribers.

The landline currently has a balance of $163,612, while the cell phone account has a balance of $1.56 million. Weigle is projecting the overall balance will decline to $544,000 within four years due to declining revenue and as they undertake costly updates to five dispatching centers instead of one, especially if the state follows through with plans to require counties to upgrade to Next Generation 911 (NG 911), which would allow 911 systems to accept text messages, photographs and videos from cell phones and other electronic devices.

“We’re going to run out of money … We’re heading in that direction,” he said, later adding, “I can tell you commissioners will not put a levy on the ballot.”

Weigle also pointed out the state is moving toward consolidating 911 systems, especially among smaller counties, and future funding may only be allocated based on systems with single dispatching centers. 911 Director Bob Emmons said Mahoning County is converting to NG 911, and Columbiana Police Chief Tim Gladis said they might want to explore joining with them.

Weigle plans to prepare a monthly newsletter to keep committee members abreast of 911 finances, and he suggested they may want to begin meeting more frequently than every three months.

The only departments with representatives at the meeting were the sheriff’s office, Columbiana and East Palestine. The original 911 was approved by these communities, plus East Liverpool and Salem, with the understanding they would serve as dispatching centers, and any change could presumably require the vote of all cities, villages and townships.

Later in the meeting, the committee agreed to spend $2,633 to purchase 12 new monitors for dispatchers to use because the new aerial photograph that pops up when a 911 call is received takes up half of the 19-inch screen. Emmons said the other half of the screen is taken up by the 911 map, which has been shrunk to where it is difficult for dispatchers to read. He also said some of the nearly five-year-old screens were developing “ghost images” from being used around the clock, so it was a good time to replace them.

The new Acer monitors would be 27 inches wide, enough to adequately accommodate the aerial photograph and the map.