Funding Debate Continues Over Missouri Regional E-911 Program

Adair County officials have yet to agree on the mechanism to increase funds to the E-911 center. Funding has continued to decline as residents move away from taxable landline phones.

by Jessica Karins, Kirksville Daily Express / January 4, 2019

(TNS) — Missouri's Adair County E-911 Joint Services Board continued its long, slow march toward deciding on a new funding mechanism at a Thursday special meeting.

The Board met to once again consider the question of how to increase funding for the Adair County E-911 Center, which has declined due to an increasingly low number of people using landline phones. The Board originally voted to endorse a $1 monthly fee on all devices capable of calling 911, but the Adair County Commission declined to place the measure on the ballot. Instead, the Board was asked to reach an unanimous consensus on whether the fee or a sales tax aimed at fully funding the center would be preferable.

Ultimately, the board concluded Wednesday that it would still like to proceed with the $1 fee and place it on the April ballot. The details of the proposal and whether the Adair County Commission will agree to place in on the ballot remain unclear. The Commission has the ultimate authority on what to place before Adair County voters; the Board has no legal authority to do so, and the Commission does not need the Board's permission.

The Board plans to draft ballot language specifying that the fee would be the first step in a process that would also include creating a subcommittee to study which funding mechanism would be the best long-term solution. Members plan to finalize the language and present it to the Commission Jan. 9.

County Commissioners Mark Shahan and Bill King attended the meeting. The Commission recommended the alternative method of placing both the fee and the sales tax on the ballot, in a similar manner to the multiple measures legalizing medical marijuana placed on the statewide November ballot. Shahan said if both measures passed, the Commission would be able to choose which one to enforce. In the case of the marijuana measures, the proposal which received the most votes would have taken effect if more than one passed.

Board members said the idea would likely raise too many legal questions. Truman State University representative Sara Holzmeier also said that if both questions were on the ballot, Truman would support the $1 fee.

Adair County Ambulance District representative Larry Burton said putting both measures on the ballot would be a bad idea.

"We should come to an agreement about what is best for Adair County," Burton said.

Board member and Kirksville Police and Fire Chief Jim Hughes said the Board was in agreement that the sales tax would likely provide more funding, but he thought voters might reject the idea of paying a new tax for something that is already funded by tax revenue.

"If all agree that sales tax is better for us but it's less likely to pass, that complicates things," Hughes said.

A half-cent sales tax increase would raise the total in the City of Kirksville to 8.85 cents per dollar. A $1 monthly fee would cost $12 per year for each device that can be used to call 911.

Kirksville City Manager Mari Macomber said fully funding the center through a sales tax would raise other questions, such as whether the center would be still be housed in Kirksville's City Hall and what the makeup of the Board would be.

Macomber said the Board had been anticipated a law allowing them to impose a $1 cell phone fee for many years, and it was only once that law had been passed that the idea of a sales tax was raised.

Kirksville Fire Department representative Jon Cook said passing a sales tax would require a communications campaign that emphasized what taxing entities would do with the money they currently use to fund the 911 Center. Hughes said the sales tax also has the potential problem of being vulnerable to economic downturn.

Board chairman Don Crosby said the Board should keep in mind that there is not a crisis at the E-911 Center. He said the center only needs additional funds to expand its operations and purchase new technology.

"The funding is sustainable," Crosby said.

Board member Dave Hurt, who represents the Adair County Sheriff's Office, said the additional funds that could come from a sales tax could be used to create a joint emergency operations center for the county. He proposed a center that would include "an underground bunker-type situation" for defense against natural disasters and said the county could also hire an emergency operations director and raise funds for other staff.

Holzmeier said advocating for something like that would be impractical without concrete plans.

"I think we need to start small and go big," Holzmeier said. "I don't think we're ready to go there right now."

Board members decided instead on an option they have discussed previously: moving ahead with the $1 fee option, but including ballot language which states they will form a subcommittee to study which funding mechanism is the best long-term solution.

The deadline to place a measure on the April ballot is Jan. 22. Crosby asked Board members to email him their suggestions for what the ballot language should be. The Board will then meet to finalize that language before presenting it again to the County Commission.

King said he did not know yet whether the Commission would approve that ballot measure, saying it would need to research the issue further.

©2019 Kirksville Daily Express, Mo. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.