911 center needs $300K to avoid ‘financially distressed’ status
County leaders unhappy with service
By Steve Short
The Gibson Co. E911 center is seeking $300,000 in funding relief from the county and cities to offset a revenue shortfall and avoid being classified by the state as “financially distressed.”
But slapped with a bill for about $181,000 from the 911 board, County Mayor Tom Witherspoon said the county is considering setting up its own emergency dispatch service, in order to have more oversight and better service for customers.
A meeting of the 911 board was held May 3 at Central Control located between Trenton and Dyer.
The 911 Board of Directors has been using reserve funds several years to offset budget deficits for the call center. As of April 30, the 911 district had about $300,000 in reserves and $311,746 in a money market fund, said Board Chairman James Fountain.
“As it stands at the end of April 30, based on what we have right now, we’re looking at a $260,456 deficit,” said Fountain. “That includes $191,874 in depreciation.” Other board members are: Andy Carlton, Bryan Cathey, James Fuchs, Austin Lewis, Tommy Litton, Jason Oliver, and Lehman Webb.
Operational cost for county E911 dispatchers in 2015 was $602,000, while the center only received $96,500 in revenues. The center has 12 fulltime, and 2 part-time employees. In 2015 expenses for employees were $461,833 for salaries and $140,339 for benefits.
To produce more revenue, Gibson Co. E911 is asking for large fee increases from local agencies for 911 service. Fees requested from agencies this year: Gibson County $181,000 (increase of $152,720); Bradford $17,850 (increase of $10,167), Dyer $21,800 (increase of $5,377), Gibson $20,760 (increase of $17,974), Medina $30,330 (increase of $17,306), Rutherford $9,660 (increase of $1,502), and Yorkville $2,400 (increase of $1,608).
Gibson Vice-Mayor Chris Houck said the 911 board is asking Gibson to pay a 900% increase for 911 service. “That’s outrageous,” said Houck. “You’ve got us over a barrel.”
Part of the problem for the E911 district, is a 2001 agreement with the County Commission. When a new 911 building was constructed, the County Commission agreed to take out a $700,000 bond to pay for the building and pay the annual cost, about $28,000, in lieu of paying fees for 911 service. As a result, E911 has steadily come up short on revenue from the county.
“It wasn’t set up right. It should have been cost sharing,” said James Fountain. “We want to have cost sharing. That’s the only way to do it.”
“The Gibson Co. 911 Board is asking Gibson Co. (County Commission) to renegotiate the current resolution that implemented a capped cost of $28,000 that the county pays for the bond on the 911 building, in lieu of fees for dispatch services,” Mr. Fountain explained later. “Based on a usage rate structure that the 911 Board is looking to implement, Gibson Co. emergency services utilize 60.24% of the system (Sheriff Dept. 17.09%, EMS 39.95%, and Fire 3.20%). With the 911 Board needing to increase revenues by $300,000, the cost based on 60.24% usage comes to $180,720. Depending on what, and if the two governing bodies reach an agreement, the increased cost to Gibson Co. would be $152,720. $180,000 minus the $28,000 being paid now.”
County Mayor Witherspoon spoke at the May 3 meeting, saying he appreciated the predicament for the 911 board, but he added that the county is cutting expenses wherever possible and looking at having to implement a tax increase. Witherspoon and Fountain both said they have had frank discussions and evaluating all options to continue 911 service for residents.
“Here’s what we’re being asked to do as a County Commission,” said Witherspoon. “We’re being asked to break a contract that was written by the 911 board to get this (Central Control) building built, to allow you the opportunity to give us a bill for $180,000, to provide a service for us, that we’re, at times, very dissatisfied with, to be quite honest with you.”
“We talk about serving the public, and making sure we’re getting there as fast as we can to provide emergency services for people, and that’s what we’re all here for,” added Mayor Witherspoon. “I’ll raise taxes, whenever it’s necessary to do that. I’ll propose a tax increase for whatever’s necessary, to make sure that nobody dies, because we didn’t do what was right. I stand by that one hundred percent.”
Witherspoon said the county has a healthy General Fund balance and good bond ratings that has helped finance improvements.
“If we pay $180,000, this will mean an additional tax increase for us,” said Witherspoon. “My question is, if we’re going to have to raise taxes anyway, why don’t we raise taxes in a way that will allow us to provide our own dispatch, and we’ll have our own oversight. As it is now, we’ve got a $180,000 bill this year, and we don’t know what it will be next year. I don’t know if (the 911 board) knows what it will be next year. And we don’t have any oversight. In the past seven years, I don’t know how many times I’ve dealt with a 911 or dispatch issue. We’ve had times when dispatch has been delayed, for whatever reason. I’ve heard a lot of rumors about some things that go on out here (Central Control) at night, especially. I find myself coming out here and reaching out to (Operations Manager) Bob (Moore) and complaining to (County Fire Chief) Bryan Cathey, but at the end of the day, the county commission doesn’t have any authority, other than making a board appointment.”
Witherspoon said difficult changes were made by the county to the 911 board in recent years, looking for a positive effect that didn’t come. “The county commission can decide to do whatever they want to do,” said Witherspoon. “But I say, if we’re going to raise taxes to fix this problem, let’s also have the oversight that would come with us doing our dispatch, too.”
“I appreciate Chairman Fountain’s honesty,” Witherspoon told the 911 board. “When I asked him, if we’re not able to pay the money this year, what would happen, his answer was, ‘We’ll probably quit dispatching for you.’ I think I can speak for my board, and say if that happens, we’re going to seek an injunction to make sure you guys honor that contract, and that’s what we’ve looked into, and I’m being as upfront and honest with this (911) board as I can be.”
Mayor Witherspoon said the 911 Board should have brought the request for funding sooner. The county is now two-thirds of the way into its budget planning. “This conversation should have happened in 2011,” added County Finance Director Greg Pillow.
James Fountain and Mayor Witherspoon both said they were receptive to each other’s ideas. “I appreciate the dialogue we’ve had,” said Fountain. “We have to come to a conclusion that’s best for everybody involved.”
Robert McLeod, Director of Audits for the Tennessee 911 Board, spoke at last week’s meeting, and said about four of the state’s one hundred 911 districts have faced severe financial woes over three consecutive years and were classified as financially distressed. That number could change when audits are made public in December, and Gibson Co. could be classified as financially distressed. When a 911 district is declared as financially distressed, the state requires the local 911 board to provide a financial analysis and plan of action to correct the budget deficits. The state can put restrictions and limits on the local 911 board and try to help the district get back on solid footing financially.
“One dollar in the black will change the status,” said Mr. McLeod.
A problem for 911 districts is the loss of revenue sources. Prior to Jan. 1, 2015, 911 districts had four revenue sources: The TN Emergency Communications Board (TECB), TECB grants for equipment upgrades, telephone companies’ landline fees, and fees for dispatch services.
State law changed on Jan. 1, 2015, eliminating the TECB grants and telephone landlines as fund sources.
At the May 3 meeting, Mr. Fountain presented a financial action plan for the county 911 district, which included large increases in fees from local agencies, cutting all nonessential costs, reviewing the costs of staffing and employee benefits, scheduling staffing in the most cost effective way, and working with auditors to have the most beneficial depreciation system.
“As chairman of the Gibson Co. Emergency Communications Board, and on behalf of the full board, the focus has been, and always will be on our customers who need and call 911 for emergency assistance,” said Mr. Fountain. “That means we must do what is in the best interest of the citizens in our communities. This is not an easy issue by any means, and it is not in the best economic times for any of us, but that is what has brought us here.
“A decrease in revenues, and an increase in expenditures are unsustainable, and can no longer be ignored,” said Fountain. “Together we have to figure out a path forward that keeps what is in the best interest of our citizens at the forefront of all discussions and decisions.”