Byars presents 911 funding issue to Benton City Council

Marshall County officials are working to make certain residents understand what their options are when it comes to E-911 department funding.

Sheriff Kevin Byars addressed the public during a regularly-scheduled Benton City Council meeting Monday at Benton City Hall to present potential courses of action the county could take to fund the rising costs for the local emergency response center. Byars, who stood in for E-911 Director Misti Drew at the meeting due to funeral, said rising equipment and training costs coupled with a sharp decline in landline usage – from which surcharges were initially imposed to fund the department – had led to increasing budget shortfalls.

“Right now we’re down to about 8,000 or less landlines, and when 911 started back in 1992 we were at 12,000 and had very little cellphone use,” Byars said. “… The landline fees we have not increased any at all, since 1992; the cellphone fees have not increased until last year, it went from 70 cents to 90 cents. Of that 90 cents only about 43 cents came back to 911, as far as we know.”

Byars said industry deregulation and the market saturation of cellphone companies operating in a given locale made it difficult to keep track the number of users on a particular system to accurately collect charges for the department.

“There’s just no way to determine,” he said. “We’ve tried.”

At present, the county subsidizes those shortfalls, but it’s become a difficult burden to bear. Byars said what started as a $125,000 subsidy in 2010 – when funding issues first arose in the county – has risen to $320,000 budgeted for next year.

The decline in landline usage coupled with mandated equipment upgrades and an increasing call volume has only fed those rising costs. Byars said when the department first began in the county, the center received 4,000 calls for service. Last year, that number had skyrocketed to more than 100,000.

“Of those 100,000, over 63,000 somebody actually went to that call,” he said. “What I mean by that is fire, EMS, police was sent to calls on 63,000 we were actually dispatched.”

Presently, the center is funded through landline fees, CRMS – which is state-level collection on cellphone usage – and fiscal court.

Byars four possible solutions to the department’s funding crisis: Entering into another interlocal agreement with Benton, Hardin, Calvert City and Marshall County; increasing fees on landlines; assessing a fee on property tax bills for occupied dwellings throughout the county; or turning control of the facility over to Kentucky State Police.

Of the options available, each had their drawbacks. Increasing fees on landlines could mean those who maintain the lines – largely senior citizens and business owners – were shouldering the burden for everyone, he said. Entering into an interlocal agreement assessing fees based on per capita population breakdown per town could prove untenable for smaller communities like Hardin. And turning the facility over to KSP would mean longer wait times on response, he said.

However, Byars said assessing a fee on property taxes could be the most equitable division of financial responsibility. The county is considering a model after that implemented in Campbell County.

“It’s a yearly fee – once a year,” Byars said. “The landline fees, surcharges, would go away except for cellphones. Cellphone will still be there, because we can’t do anything with that because that is state regulated. The local landline fees will go away, and it will be attached to the tax bill. Now, that doesn’t mean that every parcel of land will have that fee on it. It will be the responsibility of 911 along with the PVA office to determine what an occupied unit is. For example, you’ve got a house on a piece of land and you’ve got another parcel of land that’s got nothing but a barn on it and a bunch of cows. The parcel of land that’s got the barn and the cows on it will not have that fee put on but that occupied residence will have that fee put on it.”

Byars said businesses that shared space would be considered differently. For example, Walmart shares space with several businesses in the strip mall on its land. Byars said a fee would be assessed on each business occupying space.

Benton City Councilman Justin Lamb raised concerns about control of the proposed fee and asked for a solid number. Lamb questioned whether the fiscal court had the power to raise that fee at any time, which Byars said it did; however, Byars said the fee was different from a tax in that it could only be used for E-911.

“All due respect, whether it’s a fee or a tax … it’s still coming out of the taxpayer’s pocket,” Lamb said. “…What about the revenue from alcohol? Can it be used for 911? … Have we not thought about maybe lobbying our legislators to get that changed? … Alcohol was going to cure just every ill we have in the county.”

Because 911 is a cooperative of agencies and not solely law enforcement, it does not qualify as a law enforcement agency and thus alcohol sales revenues cannot be used to fund the agency under state law.

Byars said because representatives were still conducting town hall meetings on the proposal and were awaiting feedback from the public prior to a vote, no specific fee calculation had been determined nor had details on how the county would determine the precise definition of an occupied dwelling according to an ordinance been established. Byars said there would be hiccoughs to work out, such as how to assess fees on rental property, as well.

County Attorney Jeff Edwards said regardless of which way county commissioners voted to fund the program, he felt it was crucial to keep it in service. Edwards said the state was looking to consolidate 911 operations around the commonwealth, and having a fully-operational center in Marshall County when surrounding areas did not would only serve to help the county stay ahead of the curve.

“In my experience with 911 on a weekly basis here, it’s nice to have it in your backyard,” Edwards said. “I think if we do this right and we keep our jewel together when the consolidation happens they’re going to be coming to us. And then it’s going to be other people helping us pay to help them. That’s speculation, but in my 20 years as county attorney, I think that’s the cycle we’re headed for.”

Byars encouraged residents to attend one of the four remaining town hall meetings to weigh in on the issue and learn more about the difficulties facing the department. Remaining meetings were set for the following times:

  • 6:30 p.m. Thursday, April 20 at South Marshall Fire Department (formerly Aurora-Ross) in Aurora
  • 6:30 p.m. Thursday, April 27 at the Marshall County fiscal courtroom (old courthouse) in Benton
  • 6:30 p.m. Thursday, May 4 at the Community Center building in Hardin

All meetings are open to the public. Elected officials will take feedback from constituents in those meetings to confer with county commissioners on chosen options.