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Wednesday
September 19, 2018

Group seeks revenue for 911

By David Showers
This article was published September 10, 2018 at 4:00 a.m.

The lobbying group for counties told 911 administrators last week raising fees wireless providers collect in support of emergency telephone service is its top priority for next year's legislative session, generating a revenue increase lawmakers may condition on 911 call center consolidation.

Josh Curtis, governmental affairs director for the Association of Arkansas Counties, told 911 administrators at last week's Arkansas Emergency Management Conference at the Hot Springs Convention Center legislators are likely to tie a fee increase to consolidation. According to the state's Next Generation 911 Plan, the state has 127 public safety answering points, or PSAPs.

The Emergency Telephone Service Board allocates the 65 cents providers collect on cellphone bills to counties, which use the funds to operate primary and secondary PSAPs. Counties with municipalities that operate primary PSAPs, which can receive 911 calls and dispatch emergency personnel, are required to provide those cities a population-based share of the ETSB payment.

Garland County disburses $111,000 of the more than $500,000 it receives annually from ETSB to Hot Springs, which operates a primary PSAP dispatching the police and fire departments. Curtis said cellphone fees generate about $20 million a year, and, according to the state's 911 plan, landline fees providers remit to counties directly for 911 expenses raised $6.7 million in 2016.

The state reported $51.8 million in 911 expenses for 2016 were offset by revenues of $24.3 million, a disparity that has been ever growing as cellphones have replaced landlines as the top revenue producer. The increasing market share landlines have lost to Voice over Internet Protocol, or VOIP, has aggravated the disparity, Curtis said, as the 65-cent cellphone fee is assessed on VOIP service instead of the percentage-based landline fee.

Landline fees remitted to Garland County's emergency 911 fund fell from more than $325,000 in 2017 to a projected $275,000 this year, according to county budget information. Cellphone fees the county receives from ETSB rose from $511,000 last year to a projected $550,000 in 2018.

"I'm here to tell you the Legislature thinks 127 PSAPs is way too many," Curtis said. "The money is not there to adequately fund 100 PSAPs or even 75. Counties and cities are supplementing 911 by over $20 million. That's $20 million that could go to police, fire, something you could give county employees raises with rather than coming out of the general fund and supplementing 911."

Curtis said legislation the Association of Counties is developing would increase the cellphone fee, possibly doubling the current charge. The increase would close the gap in revenue and expenses and help the state transition from 1970s landline technology to internet protocol-based Next Generation 911.

"Our fee is one of the lowest in the country," Curtis said. "The national average is $1.05 or $1.10. We need to get it at least above the national average to adequately fund Next Generation 911. I think the idea is to get it close to double that fee and hopefully with some efficiencies, with technology and consolidation, it would be pretty close to net neutral."

County Judge Rick Davis told officials during last week's unveiling of the county's new PSAP that the current fee-and-service structure is unsustainable.

"Right now, the county is currently subsidizing dispatching and 911 in Garland County to the tune of $850,000 out of our general fund," Davis said, explaining that the county uses its cellphone and landline fee allocations to support the city's primary PSAP and secondary PSAPs in Hot Springs Village and the State Police's Troop K. "To me, this is a public service, revenues that are currently being generated don't stack up to what it takes to operate it.

"If we reduce the number of PSAPs, we can cut those costs and get the moneys to where they're more in line to what we need to have to operate the system."

Davis said the county has a plan to bring secondary PSAPs into the new emergency communications center over the next five years. He said if secondary call centers, which are limited to dispatching and do not have the capability to receive 911 calls, don't consolidate by then, the county might cut off funding.

Local on 09/10/2018
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