News : Call Centers Seek Funding Solutions
Muskogee, Ok, Jan 14, 2015 -- Emergency call centers across the state "are desperately in need of some help," and local officials tried to drum up support among state lawmakers who might lend a hand.
Muskogee Police Chief Derek Tatum said the revenue stream for 911 call centers derived from user fees assessed for telephones and cellphones is drying up. Something must be done to offset that loss of revenue, Tatum said, or these call "centers and computer equipment" will be "falling down around us."
Tatum, who serves as chairman of the trust authority that oversees the countywide 911 system here, urged local lawmakers who attended a meeting Tuesday to support a bill that would raise user fees on cellphones. A bill sponsored by Sen. Susan Paddack, D-Ada, would raise the present fee from 50 cents a line to $1.
If the measure passes, Tatum said 90 percent of the revenue would be funneled to local 911 dispatch centers in amounts based upon population. The remainder would fund the position of a state 911 coordinator, grants for centers that serve the least populated areas and a 2 percent to 3 percent fee to cover the administrative costs of collecting and disbursing revenue from those user fees.
Steve Bradley, 911 coordinator for the city of Broken Arrow, said user fees assessed for phone lines — both landlines and cellphones — make up about 40 percent of a call center’s budget. The balance comes from the coffers of municipal and county governments.
The 911 system was built upon a funding method funded by user fees assessed for landlines, the use of which has fallen steadily since 2000. User fees were assessed later on cellphone lines, but that fee was about one-fourth of what the land line fee was.
While the use of cellphones grew at an accelerated rate for the first decade of the century, it began to level off in 2011. Tatum said even though the use of cellphones has increased the combination of a lower user fee and the falling number of landlines have contributed to declining revenue from those user fees.
"You have to keep in mind that 911 centers are all technology based, (and) there will be a time and place where we are going to have to replace this stuff," Tatum said, noting user fee revenue for the call center here has dropped from $1.134 million in fiscal year 2012 to a projected $920,000 this year. "We can’t build a little reserve here and there — we will be just where we were five or six years ago, where the center and the computer equipment is falling down around us."
Rep. Jerry McPeak, D-Warner, and Sen. Earl Garrison, D-Muskogee, said they would support a hike in the user fees for cellphone lines, but both believe it could be a hard sale at the Capitol. McPeak said it will be a battle between "logic and politics."
"This is logical and it makes sense, but there are going to be some of those guys up there who say, ‘Well, gosh, you are raising taxes,’" McPeak said. "What you really hate about this is ... if it’s logical and makes sense, it has a hell of a hard time up there."
Garrison said backers of the proposal are going to have to convince people to support it at every stage of the legislative process. He also cautioned those who attended the meeting Tuesday about potential resistance from telecommunication providers.
Bradley said an invitation has been extended to industry representatives to discuss solutions, but they have been reluctant participants. Bradley said there is some interest in the funding of a statewide coordinator, a position lawmakers created but never funded.
"One of the issues they will buy into is if we fund the state 911 coordinator to help oversee the systems," Bradley said. "They also want to see us tighten up the statute as what the money can be used for, and I don’t think there is a 911 board in the state that will argue with them on that."
Tatum anticipated they would like the idea of a centralized system for the deposit and disbursement of user fees. The present system requires them to disburse user fees to each 911 system within a provider’s service area.
Posted by Veronica Silva Cusi, news correspondent
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Published: Thursday, January 15, 2015
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