Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Commissioners balk at raising phone fee

25-cent surcharge would help fund 911 system

Express Staff Writer

    The imposition of a 25-cent monthly fee on Blaine County phone lines to help modernize the county’s 911 dispatch system appears unlikely.
    Though no decision was made during a meeting Tuesday, Blaine County commissioners appeared disinclined to add the fee to an existing $1 monthly charge. The 25-cent fee would be collected by the state Emergency Communications Commission and distributed to counties in its discretion as part of its Dedicated Enhanced Emergency Communications Grant Fee Fund. Idaho law does not permit the county to collect more than $1 per month from phone bills on its own.
    Commissioner Larry Schoen said the county takes in about $400,000 annually from the existing fee.
    County Emergency Communications Director Robin Stellers told the commissioners that in a few years there should be a total of about $850,000 in upgrades made to the county’s emergency phone system, computer-aided dispatch system, records-management system and mobile data terminals carried in police cars. She said not everything in the system is eligible for state grants.
    Though discussion on the subject during a commissioners meeting on Sept. 19 focused on preparing the county’s system for Next Generation 911, which includes the capability to view text messages and photos, Stellers said in an interview that the existing dispatch system has the technology to process such messages, and deaf people in the county already have phones that can send text messages via 911. However, she said the system will not be set up to accept such communications from the general public until all the cell phone companies coordinate their sending systems.

The lack of clarity from the state about how they’re going to do planning for the future doesn’t help.”
Derek Voss
County administrator

    Stellers told the commissioners that the county’s 911 phone system has been replaced by a new model and will be serviceable only for a maximum of seven more years.
    Though Commissioner Jacob Greenberg said the county should begin next year to budget for additional 911 system expenses, both he and Schoen said they don’t support charging taxpayers money to replace equipment that still has several more years of use, especially since there is no guarantee that the county will be awarded the amounts it seeks from the grant program.
    “The county has the ability to plan and to marshal the resources to meet its own needs,” Schoen said.
    Stellers said emergency-dispatch systems are moving toward a global network of phone, radio and Internet lines. However, she said, the state of Idaho does not yet have a plan for how to coordinate those systems statewide.
    “The lack of clarity from the state about how they’re going to do planning for the future doesn’t help,” County Administrator Derek Voss said.
    The grant program requires a county to collect the 25-cent fee for a year before it can apply for grants, which are awarded each November. That means Blaine County will have to decide by the end of October whether it wants to impose the fee if it wants to apply for a grant in 2014. Schoen said he would place the issue on the agenda for the commissioners’ Oct. 29 meeting.
Greg Moore:

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