Kokomo Tribune; Kokomo, Indiana

October 14, 2012

Finding a way forward for dispatch

No two Indiana counties field emergency calls the same way

By Scott Smith
Tribune staff writer

— INDIANPOLIS — In all of Indiana, there might not be two local emergency dispatch operations that share the same funding method.

There is one thing local officials agree on, however.

That is the fact that E911 fees, paid as part of local phone bills, don’t come close to covering the cost of providing the service.

Tuesday, the head of the Bartholomew County Emergency Management Agency, Ed Reuther, was telling a state advisory panel about the myriad streams of funding which make up his agency’s annual budget.

“Yes, cities and counties can work together, and in this case [dispatch], they must work together. There is no other way,” Reuther told members of the Indiana Advisory Commission on Intergovernmental Relations.

In Howard County, it appears increasingly likely that Kokomo Mayor Greg Goodnight won’t agree to continue the current interlocal agreement governing joint dispatch past 2013.

That doesn’t mean, Goodnight stresses, that city residents won’t contribute toward paying for dispatch.

Rather, Goodnight said he wants the county — which now has full control over dispatch — to figure out how to pay for it.

Tuesday, Goodnight was on hand in Indianapolis as mayors, a city manager and EMA directors from around Indiana described funding battles similar to the one currently brewing between the Kokomo administration and Howard County officials.

Robin Brandgard, director of the Plainfield/Hendricks County EMA, said E911 fees supply about 40 percent of his agency’s budget, with the remaining 60 percent coming “from local jurisdictions.”

For many counties, the “local jurisdictions” filling in gaps in funding include small towns and even trustees offices.

In other counties, like Howard County, only the county and the principal city contribute to the funding pool.

The problem in Hendricks County, according to Brandgard, is that “some pay too much, some pay too little, and it’s a collection nightmare.”

Brandgard said he’s considering seeking authority to have an emergency dispatch fee attached to stormwater bills for every property owner in the county.

David Bottorff, executive director of the Indiana Association of Counties, said the public’s move away from land-line phones has caused severe funding swings for emergency dispatch centers across the state.

When E911 funding started, each county was allowed to set its own rate for land-line phones. As more and more consumers added cell phones, the law was changed to allow cell phone users to be billed as well, Bottorff explained.

For a while, the transition increased revenues for local dispatch operations, as consumers kept their land lines and added cell phones. But eventually, consumers started dropping their land lines, and revenues fell sharply, he added.

Last year, the Indiana General Assembly decided to standardize cell phone fees, and passed a bill which set the fee at 90 cents per phone, per month, for consumers with a cell phone contract. People who purchase minutes pay a 50-cent fee every time they make a purchase.

Goodnight’s argument Tuesday centered on estimates that upwards of 90 percent of the user fees generated in Howard County come from people and businesses inside the city.

Because the city generates so much in user fees, and because city residents also pay county property taxes, Goodnight argued that requiring the city government to make a contribution amounts to double taxation.

“If a [government unit] receives funds to provide a service, they should have to provide that service,” Goodnight said.

Goodnight also gave kudos to Howard County Sheriff Steve Rogers, who is now in charge of dispatch, saying “two years into [combined dispatch] he’s doing a great job.”

“The issue has become funding,” Goodnight added.

State Rep. Mike Karickhoff, R-Kokomo, led Tuesday’s panel discussion, and said one of the biggest remaining questions is how to “right size” dispatch centers around the state.

“We’ve talked about oversight, and we’ve talked about funding but we haven’t talked about how to right-size dispatch,” Karickhoff said.

Scott Smith can be reached at (765) 454-8569 or at scott.smith@kokomotribune.com