By Mark Hansel
NKyTribune managing editor
The Boone County Fiscal Court Tuesday approved a measure that would fund enhancements to the Public Safety Communications (911) Center and another identifying a vendor and establishing costs to upgrade the communications system for first responders.
The Fiscal Court voted 3-1 on three measures that would fund the upgrades and eliminate a landline fee currently used as a funding source, in favor of a dwelling unit fee. The changes would go into effect in the Fiscal Year that begins on July 1, 2018.
Judge-executive Gary Moore and County commissioners Charles Kenner and Charlie Walton voted in favor of the measures. Commissioner Cathy Flaig voted against all three.
The issue has been the subject of much debate and a campaign by some in the community to paint the proposals as a tax increase. While the fee will result in an estimated annual payment of $75 for each dwelling unit in the county, it is not considered a tax.
About 20 of the more than 100 residents in attendance spoke at Tuesday’s meeting. Almost all, including former County Commissioner Matt Dedden, were opposed to the fee.
Dedden called the upgrades to the 911 service a “no-brainer” and praised the county’s first responders as among the best in the country.
“The source of funding is what bothers me,” Dedden said. “I look at revenue increases, I know we’ve had them. The revenue increases are there to pay for the service. I know you can come up to that way to pay for this without getting into people’s pockets again.”
The Fiscal Court and county staff did come up with a way to fund some of the upgrades without additional cost to taxpayers.
The Fiscal Court agreed at its March 21 meeting to fund upgrades to the communication system for first responders, which will cost $6.237 million, with General Fund reserves.
Initially, the upgrades to the communications system were estimated at about $8 million. As a result of negotiations that included a competitive bidding process among three vendors, however, Motorola was chosen as the lowest and best bid over E.F. Johnson and Harris Communications and the cost was reduced significantly.
Plans to identify the costs to implement the upgrades and develop a regional communication system that would also include Kenton and Campbell counties began in September .
The development of a regional system is expected to improve communication among and within the three counties and save millions of dollars through the use of shared equipment, such as towers.
Kenton and Campbell counties will contribute an equal amount to the development of the regional network and are expected to approve measures to fund their portion of the system in the near future.
Previously, the Fiscal Court had considered three other options to fund the upgrades, some of which would have put the burden of all of the improvements on residents. An outline of those options and an explanation of how the Fiscal Court chose the dwelling unit fee, which reduces the cost to residents, is available here .
The $75 dwelling unit fee approved Tuesday will be used to pay only for enhancements to the Public Safety Communications (911) Center.
The PSCC is funded using a landline fee, but as cell phone use has increased and the number of landlines has diminished, the county has had to increasingly supplement the Center. The county’s supplemental contribution has now risen to approximately $2 million per year.
The third measure approved Tuesday, as a result of the decision to implement a dwelling fee was the elimination of the landline fee, which is $2.78 per telephone line, per month or $33.36 per year. With the elimination of that traditional telephone fee, residents who currently have a landline would see a net increase of $41.64, compared to the $75 for those without a landline.
Supporters of the measure say this is a more equitable solution since landline users now pay almost all of the public costs to fund the PSCC.
The dwelling unit fee includes homes and businesses, as well as individual apartments and each merchant in a strip mall. The implementation in 2018 should ensure that most owners of the latter types of properties have the option to pass the $6.08 cost per month on to tenants, or absorb the fee themselves, when leases are renewed.
There will be a benefit for businesses or residents with multiple landlines, as the there will only be one dwelling unit fee per occupied address.
Boone County Administrator Jeff Earlywine said there are approximately 52,500 dwelling units in the county.
According to information obtained using the United States Geological Survey (USGS) and the county’s own GIS mapping system, that includes approximately 35,000 single-family residences, 12,000, multi-unit dwellings, such as apartments, and 5,500 commercial businesses or other units.
Earlywine responded to questions about why the income from growth in the county cannot be used to fund the upgrades by explaining that the existing model is broken.”
“The last five years, the county would issue, on average, between 350 and 400 single-family permits, most of those people, though…don’t have landlines,” Earlywine said. “You would think in a growing county, the revenue from the landlines to date that pays for the system will grow (but) just the opposite is happening. As our county is growing and we have more units, believe it or not, we have less revenue from the $2.78 per line, per month, fee.”
Five years ago, Earlywine said the county collected $1.568 million from the fee, but this year that is projected at $1.335 million.
“It’s a very bad inverse relationship, growth goes up, landlines continue to diminish,” Earlywine said. “Even though we have more growth, we have less revenue and that’s really what the $75 fee is designed to address. Not to pay or the radio system, but to have a sustainable funding source for 911.”
The annual operating budget for the PSCC is about $4.2 million.
The county gets roughly $350,000 per year from cell phone surcharges and the $75 dwelling unit fee, multiplied by the estimated 52,500 total units will generate an additional $3.937 million, which, when combined, equals the amount needed to fund the system.
Several first responders from fire and EMT units throughout the county showed up in support of the measure, but none spoke. A task force that include first responders, county staff and community stakeholders have been working on identifying a funding source for the upgrades for about two years.
Walton, who served in the State Legislature for 12 years and didn’t vote for a single tax increase said he has a very difficult time considering any proposal to raise rates or fees for residents.
“We have a responsibility as elected officials to study the issues and then make a decision,” Walton said. “When we started looking at this thing, it wasn’t like, ‘hey, let’s throw a $75 charge on our citizens. My perspective was, ‘What’s fair to have a quality service for all of our citizens?’ I think it’s fair to have a system that is efficient and safe for all of our citizens, so everybody should pay a fair amount of fee.”
Kenner said the Fiscal Court struggled with the best way to fund the upgrades and look at the funding models of other municipalities in the region.
“Some municipalities settle this in a couple of months, with one or two readings and then off they go,” Kenner said. “We didn’t want to do things like that here (and) we don’t do things like that here. We put it out for two years for a task force, six months we have been doing this to get the public input – we do care what people think here. Some agree with us, some don’t.”
Flaig said she chose to vote against the measures but emphasized she supports the region’s first responders.
“It’s not because I feel that it’s not the right thing, I thinks it’s the wrong thing to (charge the fee) to the people who live in Boone County,” Flaig said. “We have a $17 million reserve (and) we need 25 percent of $55 million for a reserve – that comes in at $13.75 million. That’s still another three or four million dollars sitting there.”
Contact Mark Hansel at firstname.lastname@example.org