Long-Term Funding Needed for Montana 911 Upgrades

Flathead County has been working to find the funding needed to pay for ongoing improvements to its consolidated 911 call center.

by Lynnette Hintze, Daily Inter Lake / April 10, 2018
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(TNS) — A years-long effort to find sustainable funding for ongoing improvements to Flathead County’s consolidated 911 dispatch center is still chugging along, with a target date for the next ballot measure likely still a year or more away.

“At some point there will be a ballot issue, but not this year,” said Flathead County Commissioner Phil Mitchell, who serves on the 911 board. “Behind the scenes we’re working through it, but we’re taking the time to get correct numbers.”

It’s been a decade since taxpayers approved a $6.8 million bond that consolidated the county’s 911 services. The measure didn’t provide a funding mechanism for long-term capital improvement funding, however, and attempts to nail down a method of raising money have failed.

In 2014 a ballot measure to create a special district to raise about $1.8 million annually fell just 10 votes short after a recount.

A year later the commissioners proposed a special E-911 tax district that would have enabled the county to bring in $1.9 million per year. The proposal required residential property owners to pay a flat fee of $25 for 911 services and businesses would have paid anywhere from $50 to $1,000 annually, depending on size. That plan was scrapped after the commissioners received overwhelming opposition from mail-in protest forms from taxpayers.

The capital improvement fund pays for computer upgrades, radio equipment and other technology needed to connect emergency responders with callers.

The 911 center’s operating budget is funded by a property tax levy of about 6 mills that generates roughly $1.5 million annually. The county’s three incorporated cities chip in money based on population, and a small tax on county residents’ phone bills brings in the rest of the operating money.

The 911 center’s current fiscal-year budget is $3.1 million, down about $100,000 from the previous year. Some money has been transferred from the center’s operating budget to the capital improvement fund, but this fiscal year the county opted to begin transferring $158,000 annually into the capital improvement fund, county Finance Director Amy Dexter said. That level of transfer will continue for the next four years.

The center’s capital improvement fund currently has $606,259, with an expected fiscal year ending valance of $467,205, Dexter said.

The original bond issue included an $800,000 set-aside for minimal capital improvements, but at one point a few years ago that fund had dwindled to $100,000 with needed tech upgrades bearing down on the dispatch center.

Another lingering issue is the fact that residents of the county’s three incorporated cities are billed twice for emergency services, once by the city and once by the county. Yet county residents contribute only to the county’s portion of funding. The funding mechanism, which many city officials have called unfair, has been an ongoing debate about how to pay for the 911 center.

A subcommittee of the 911 board, chaired by Whitefish City Council member Katie Williams, has been meeting regularly and is methodically researching options for the best way to generate money for the capital improvement fund.

“We’re looking at finding a more sustainable funding mechanism in longevity,” Williams said. “It’s still in the planning phase. We’re researching different ways to assess property owners.”

Williams said one option that’s been floated is to pattern a 911 fee after the Solid Waste District’s annual landfill assessment.

“We’re trying to figure out all the logistics,” she said. “We’re taking out time, vetting it … there will be a ballot issue down the road, but not this year.”

©2018 the Daily Inter Lake (Kalispell, Mont.) Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.