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Missouri County, City Ponder Cell Tax Measure to Fund 911

If approved by voters in Randolph County and Moberly, the tax would essentially add a $1 monthly fee for each cellphone used in the county. A three percent sales tax will also be added on the purchase of prepaid cellphones.

by Erik Cliburn, Moberly Monitor-Index / January 18, 2019
Shutterstock/denk creative

(TNS) — The Randolph County Commission, Moberly City Council and city manager met Tuesday to continue discussing the implementation of a 911 cellphone tax for city and county funding.

The tax will require voter approval and is expected to appear on an April ballot. The county and city are working on a finalized version, and the ballot language for the tax will be available shortly after Jan. 22.

"Our intentions are to go ahead and place this initiative up on the ballot... and see where that takes us," Presiding County Commissioner John Truesdell said.

If approved by voters, the tax would essentially add a $1 monthly fee for each cellphone used in the county. A three percent sales tax will also be added on the purchase of prepaid cellphones.

Money from the tax will be used to fund dispatching for emergency services in Moberly and Randolph.

The tax is permitted by a bipartisan state law that passed last year and went into effect Jan. 1. The new law allows local governments to implement a tax on cellphone services to help fund 911 emergency call centers. It mimics a similar landline tax, which accrues less money as landline usage decreases.

The dispatch system for Randolph County is centralized through the Moberly Police Department. When 911 is called, an emergency operator takes the information from the caller and determines which emergency service to direct the call. If law enforcement is appropriate, the call is dispatched directly to Moberly PD or the Randolph County Sheriff's Department, based on the incident's location.

If Randolph County Ambulance District, the Moberly Fire Department or one of the rural fire departments are needed, the call is directed from Moberly PD to the RCAD dispatch. Dispatch will then send out the call to the necessary emergency service, due to software incompatibilities between departments. The call transfers are also, partially, due to the differences in training for law enforcement dispatchers and medical/fire dispatchers.

RCAD's software accesses medical records as well as fire emergency information, unlike Moberly PD's software. Certain dispatchers are also trained for their specific call type. The EMTs at RCAD are always on rotation as trained dispatchers.

City Manager Brian Crane said the city and county's arrangement fits under the shared services model in the legislation, because the county and city can draw from the tax funds.

Crane said there is no real model to estimate what the tax would generate, but based on the county's population and estimated cellphone use, it could generate between $275,000-300,000.

"There's not been any real organization that put out on what they think this tax might generate," Crane said. "We're kind of going (in) blind. We did an educated guess, based on population counts and what we think peoples' phone habits are, and we think it's going to (bring in) $275,000 to $300,000 a year."

Crane said the dispatching system's annual operating costs are approximately $600,000, but the city can only contribute $140,000 from the landline tax. The rest is pulled from general funds in the city budget.

A similar situation occurs in the county. The county pays approximately $90,000 to Moberly for dispatching, but only has $70,000 of that covered by the landline tax.

Local governments that opt out of the tax will not receive any of the funding to put toward emergency communication.

To take advantage of the tax, it needs to be passed in 2019, otherwise the county and city will lose out on the funds.

"There is a time limit on this," Truesdell said. "If we don't go after this, this will go away, and that opportunity will be lost."

Although the estimated tax revenue will not completely cover the cost of dispatching services, it will significantly decrease the amount of money coming from both the city and county's general funds.

Crane said the new funds could allow for the dispatch services to upgrade technology, increase dispatcher pay and improve operation of the services. Both parties, along with the department heads from each emergency service in the county, first met in September to discuss possible upgrades to the system.

"We could do a better job if we had more resources," Crane said. "With pay for dispatchers, technology upgrades, overall operation and maintenance... these are all things we've been discussing."

During the meeting, Truesdell suggested the creation of a 911 Emergency Board for dispatch and 911 services, which would be responsible for allocating funds to the various emergency communication services in the county. At the September meeting, he suggested a model with which the county commission could appoint the board leader, then open the other board positions for a county election. He said he would like to see a more centralized dispatch that is overseen by a board, similar to how RCAD operates.

©2019 Moberly Monitor-Index, Mo. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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