Sales tax proposal asks voters to pay for major changes to 911 services [Columbia Daily Tribune (MO)]
(Columbia Daily Tribune (MO) Via Acquire Media NewsEdge) Sixty seconds is too long to wait for an answer to a 911 call, Boone County officials say, but 106 callers experienced at least that delay in January. Their long wait was typical of the pace of activity at Columbia-Boone County Joint Communications. In fact, during the past six months, an average 128 callers per month seeking emergency services waited more than a minute for an answer.
To increase the ranks of workers who take those calls and build an $11.3 million center to house the operations, among other improvements, Boone County government will ask voters in April to approve a three-eighths-cent sales tax to fund combined 911 and emergency management services. The permanent tax would transfer the two city departments to county government and support an annual expenditure of $8.66 million to operate them.
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The National Fire Protection Association says 911 call takers should answer 95 percent of calls within 15 seconds and at least 99 percent within 40 seconds. During the second half of 2012, call takers at the local 911 center failed to meet those standards: They answered 85.8 percent of calls within 15 seconds and 95 percent of calls within 40 seconds.
Proposition 1, which would generate an estimated $9.3 million annually, is needed in part to help 911 services reach those benchmarks, supporters say.
"This is not a park tax. This is an integral part of public safety," said Boone County Sheriff Dwayne Carey, who has been instrumental in designing the proposal. "If we can't get calls in, then we can't get our first responders there."
Currently, the 13 public safety agencies in Boone County that use 911 services contribute to its $2.7 million budget. An additional $218,000 funds emergency management operations. The sales tax proposal combines the operations and funds a $6.4 million operating budget. In addition, Proposition 1 would support bond financing for the construction of a facility designed to withstand an EF-5 tornado, plus new radio equipment, hardware and software, and nearly double the number of employees. An additional $2.2 million is budgeted to retire the bond debt.
During the first year of collection, Boone County government would require 17 percent of the sales tax to be set aside in a reserve fund. Replacement of funds withdrawn from the reserve would be required to keep it at 17 percent.
Proponents said they considered a quarter-cent tax proposal, which is the next lowest increment allowed by state law, but a quarter-cent tax would collect an estimated $6.2 million annually, short of the $8.6 million the operation and debt retirement are expected to cost.
Boone County Presiding Commissioner Dan Atwill has spearheaded the campaign to pass Proposition 1. City officials have been mostly noncommittal, but Columbia Mayor Bob McDavid yesterday said he supports the sales tax.
Last summer, Carey was appointed by the Public Safety Joint Communications board to identify new revenue and examine the status of 911 and emergency management services. A county-appointed citizens committee last fall also reviewed those services, and both recommended the sales tax be put to voters in April.
Carey said he and 911 staff members have toured several centers across Missouri to identify what works best. Working with architect John Simon, officials estimated the construction of a 20,000-square- foot building to house 911 and emergency management services would cost $11.3 million. That structure would be built on the county's law enforcement campus behind the sheriff's department in north Columbia.
Building the structure on county-owned property will cut costs, Atwill said, and soil testing will not be necessary because testing for recent construction of the sheriff's department's annex still applies.
Half of the facility will be underground and will house 911 services. There, 67 employees will work varying shifts, Carey said. Eight staff members will comprise a technology team to service new hardware and software -- a necessity, Carey said, because 911 now relies on city technicians for service the county would not be able to provide if 911 switches to a county department. The 911 center now employs 34 workers.
An additional 20 workers would be divided between call takers and dispatchers, bringing the total of those positions to 45. The remaining 22 positions would be devoted to administrative and technology support.
The additional call takers will relieve dispatchers and supervisors from having to answer calls during busy times, 911 interim Director Joe Piper said. He said diverting dispatchers and supervisors from helping responders headed to emergencies to answering 911 calls is the department's greatest flaw.
A call taker records the 911 caller's information and passes it along to a dispatcher. The dispatcher communicates the information by radio to the appropriate public safety agency -- police, fire or ambulance.
The separate responsibilities allow the call taker to concentrate on the emergency and direct the caller on what to do, such as how to perform CPR or stop bleeding. The dispatcher communicates with the officer or firefighter en route to provide as much information as possible.
Dispatchers diverted to answering calls cannot engage in crucial communication with emergency responders, Piper said. He cited as an example firefighters, who are often the first responders to an emergency. They need to know a residence where shots have been fired has been cleared by police before they enter, he said.
Staffing one call taker or dispatch position 24 hours a day seven days a week in rotating shifts requires five workers. The tax would allow five call takers to be assigned to each shift instead of one.
The emergency management operation would occupy the top floor of the proposed new center and would include accommodations proponents say are necessary in the event of a multi-day disaster.
"In a long-term event, you may need a sleep room, or dark room, with cots," Carey said. "Think about it: Operators can't leave during a disaster. That means you also need showers, a kitchen and an exercise room."
In addition, elected officials and city and county department heads would gather on the top floor during emergencies to keep government services running and to coordinate emergency responses.
At present, a federal grant funds portions of personnel cost associated with emergency management. Until recently, the 911 center director was responsible for emergency management, and the grant paid a portion of that salary. Scott Olsen, interim director of emergency management and Boone County Fire Protection District chief, said the city and county governments matched the $109,001 federal grant in 2012, for a total budget of $218,002.
Under the sales tax, emergency management's staff would total six full-time employees with an estimated budget of $515,000. The department would hire a permanent director and continue to apply for federal funding, Olsen said. The tax would add full-time emergency management positions of deputy director, administrative/grants manager, planning/GIS specialist, preparedness specialist/public information officer and a training/exercise specialist.
EQUIPMENT AND SOFTWARE
Proposition 1 includes a $5.41 million budget for replacing outdated equipment and software.
The transfer of 911 services from the city to the county means the department would not be taking city property with it to the new facility. Current work stations are obsolete, making replacement parts expensive, Piper said.
Supporters estimate $3.24 million will be needed to update obsolete radio equipment that connects dispatchers with emergency responders in the field. In addition to the 16 radio consoles needed for dispatchers and call takers, the tax would fund updates and maintenance for 21 radio towers. Radio coverage is weak in some areas, Piper said, especially the Missouri River bottoms.
A $598,000 911 system upgrade funded by the county last year set the stage for technological advances. That system would be expanded from eight to 16 work stations.
The Computer Aided Dispatch system also needs an upgrade and more licenses, Piper said.
The county-appointed panel's fall report suggested an urgent need to increase staff, purchase equipment and build a new facility as soon as possible. Using the proposed sales tax as a revenue source, the county decided to issue $20 million in special obligation bonds to build and outfit the facility immediately, Boone County Treasurer Nicole Galloway said. Retirement of the 20-year bond will cost $2.2 million annually.
At a projected 3.8 percent, she said, "Rates are lower than they have been in the last 10 to 15 years, for sure."
The county considered another financing option to retire the debt -- a general obligation bond -- but that would have required a voter- submitted petition. Signatures could not have been gathered in time for the April ballot, Carey said, and supporters believed the state of 911 services was too critical to delay a vote. Also, GO bonds would have required two ballot questions: one for approval to use property tax revenue to retire the construction bond, and another for a sales tax to fund operations.
The property tax option would have saved about $700,000 over 20 years, Galloway said, but county officials believed the two ballot issues would confuse voters.
"We thought the most straightforward way would be to have one tax that paid for the operations, the facility and ongoing," she said.
If Proposition 1 is approved, the new sales tax will be collected starting Oct. 1 and will increase Columbia's rate to 7.975 percent. That rate reflects a new quarter-cent sales tax approved in November to be collected for the Boone County Children's Fund starting April 1.
Centralia and Sturgeon will join Columbia at 7.975 percent, the highest rate in Boone County. Unincorporated Boone County will charge the lowest countywide rate, 5.975 percent. Those rates do not include additional sales taxes in special taxing districts throughout the county.
The revenue would fund the estimated $8.66 million in annual costs to operate 911 services and emergency management and $2.2 million for bond retirement. Hardware and software would be on a replacement schedule to help with budgeting, Galloway said.
If Proposition 1 is approved, an advisory board made up of representatives from the 13 user agencies and other residents will settle a long-standing dispute between 911's current board and the city concerning operations. Last summer, Carey identified 15 additional responsibilities placed on 911 staff that could be done by other agencies.
The Columbia Police Department relies on 911 staff to enter a time-consuming volume of data into the Missouri Uniform Law Enforcement System, or MULES. Chief Ken Burton has said he was open to the idea of the police department taking on that work.
Piper and Carey said the 911 center has tried to shed data entry responsibilities for its inadequate staff, but previous city managers left those tasks with the call center. At the sheriff's department, clerical staff enter data into MULES for sheriff's deputies.
MULES data work can require 5 to 15 minutes per entry for telecommunicators who are also answering emergency calls or dispatching, Piper said. Staff entered or maintained about 5,600 entries for Columbia police during a two-month span last year.
"It's a records function, not a dispatch function," Piper said.
Other added responsibilities included tracking Columbia police's bait cars and alarm billing for Columbia police and fire.
User agencies identified 15 responsibilities they said were not 911-related, but the city did not change anything. The Boone County Commission followed up by asking the city to pare down the list of responsibilities, but still nothing was done.
"The user agencies can do more," Columbia fire Chief Charles Witt said at the time.
The approval of Proposition 1 would mean the 13 agencies that now use and fund 911 services will end their expenditures at the conclusion of each agency's 2014 fiscal budget. Those agencies include fire and ambulance districts, as well as police.
At $1.7 million per year, Columbia will save the most because it uses 911 services more than other agencies. That money will not go back into the city's general fund, City Manager Mike Matthes said.
The Columbia City Council last year decided it would reallocate $1.3 million in annual savings to support a three-year budget reduction plan, Matthes said. The remaining $400,000 in savings would pay for up to four additional firefighters and two police officers.
Because the city already has plans for its savings in 2014 and beyond, the 911 user agencies and the city are working to find a way to coordinate funding of the reorganized services with the agencies' various budget calendars. Extending the city's contribution another year would result in $1.3 million worth of personnel layoffs, Matthes said, because there are already other plans for that money.
"We don't have a plan B." he said. "At this point, we have cut almost every service in the city."
Boone County would save the second-largest amount, $600,000 annually. But that would be diminished because the transfer of 911 and emergency management oversight would increase administrative costs for county payroll by about $150,000, Boone County Auditor June Pitchford said.
The remainder of funding would be reallocated to the county's general fund, Atwill said, but he expects most of it will be used to cover unforeseen costs related to creating a county department.
County commissioners have said approval of Proposition 1 would end a 2-percent tax on landline telephone use. The phone tax, approved in 1985, raises about $190,000 each year to fund some 911 services and communication projects, Pitchford said.
The rural fire districts collect insufficient funds through basic property taxes to pay for their share of 911 services, so the Boone County and Southern Boone County fire districts levy an additional property taxes for 911.
Jim Cunningham, director of the Southern Boone district board, said the board is waiting to see whether Proposition 1 passes before it determines whether to eliminate or phase out the district's 2.8- cent property tax per every $100 of assessed valuation. That tax -- limited to use for emergency dispatch and communications equipment - - raised $32,550 last year, and all of it went to pay the fire district's share of 911 services.
"We will strongly consider repealing that tax," Cunningham said.
The Boone County Fire Protection District collects a similar property tax that raised $153,009 last year. Much of that paid for its share of 911 services, but some funded communications equipment, said Chief Scott Olsen, who was also appointed interim director of emergency management.
The fire district likely will keep its property tax on the books if the sales tax is approved, Olsen said, but the property tax would be set at zero.
"Instead of just repealing the tax, we will keep it in case of some unusual situation," he said.
This article was published in the Friday, March 8 2013 edition of the Columbia Daily Tribune with the headline "In case of emergency: Sales tax proposal asks voters to pay for major changes to 911 services."
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