Chesterton Tribune

Porter County Council urges working with municipalities on E911 fund crisis

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By JEFF SCHULTZ

Porter County is still in a jam when it comes to keeping its Enhanced 911 operating past 2014, but the county council believes the solution will manifest with continued collaboration with the eleven municipalities.

About half of the county’s municipalities were represented for a special discussion at Tuesday’s Council meeting to consider a direction for finding a solution to overcome the more than $2 million in yearly losses anticipated if no remedy is put in place by 2014.

State in need of more data

Local state Rep. Ed Soliday, R-Valparaiso, got the talk moving by outlining to council members on where the state assembly is moving, or not moving, on the issue.

Soliday said lobbying for additional 911 money was heavy this year as all counties are seeing facing deficits for their 911 dispatch centers.

“Porter County is not unique in struggling with this issue,” he said.

The state is appropriating $21 million more for county 911 operations throughout Indiana’s 92 counties but is contemplating on how it will decide to distribute the amount based on an assortment of variables including county size and population, operating budget amounts and how fiscally responsible a county is, Soliday said.

The state will take the previous three year average for phone surcharge fees and set it as the minimum for how much will be appropriated for each county. Porter can expect at least $1.6 million, the same it has been collecting from landline and cell phone surcharges. However, whatever amounts may follow will not be able to suffice for Porter County’s E-911 projected budget of $3.6 million.

New legislation put the surcharges on cell phones and landlines at 90 cents per month and 50 cents for every reload on prepaid cell phones.

Any additional money brought in, the state will take 10 percent and divide it evenly to each county and the rest will be divvied up based on population.

Soliday said the newly formed state 911 board will have the option to raise the monthly surcharges by 10 cents each year without needing prior approval by the legislation.

Counties are required by Dec. 31, 2014, to consolidate their dispatching centers to one Public Safety Answering Points (PSAPs) or else revenue from phone fees will be withheld, Soliday said. Consolidating may be challenging for a few counties such as Lake which currently has 19 PSAPs.

Disputes with telecommunication companies over surcharge amounts have stifled progress as the companies are asking to see more empirical data from the state assembly on how much it costs to run 911 dispatching centers. Soliday said the state expects to have the data by summer 2013 and counties can expect a more sophisticated funding formula once it is processed.

Soliday said it is not in his authority to decide how Porter County should proceed but gave his opinion that the county should “go slow” since the state is still moving on the issue.

“If you make a huge move, you are going to be reacting to us. And we (the state) are not stable,” said Soliday.

Search for an alternative solution

Council members thanked Soliday for his input but a few like Jim Biggs, R-1st, felt the suggestion to wait could be detrimental and emphasized some form of remedy should be immediately sought by resuming the original notion of working on a funding plan with all municipalities.

“I think the answer is going to come through us,” he told the city and town representatives present at the meeting. “Extending it out another year will be a huge mistake.”

Council President Dan Whitten, D-at large, said many of the municipalities have responded to the council’s cry saying they know the importance of 911 but currently do not have any funds available to pitch in. A letter from Portage Mayor James Snyder expressed interest in taking back the city’s general dispatching if the city had the financial means to do so.

Valparaiso City Council President Jan Dick from the floor said if his board did hand over funds, cuts will have to be made somewhere in the city’s budget.

Geof Benson, president of the Beverly Shores town council, said the town has made “cut-by-cut” but he believes having a superior 911 system is needed to uphold a high quality of life in the county and is worth the cost.

“When we call with an emergency, I want it to work,” said Benson. “If it costs $2 million a year to spread out, then so be it.”

Chesterton Fire Chief Mike Orlich said 911 communication has improved tremendously since E-911 Communications Director John Jokantas was hired in fall of last year, calling it “probably the best move the county commissioners have made in years in regards to public safety.” Biggs added that part of the improvements is due to more personnel being brought on to answer calls.

Present at the meeting, Jokantas said he is working on whittling down the 911 budget and asked the council not to make any personnel cuts since the center’s staff number is now at what is considered the national standard for public safety.

With no formal commitment from the municipal entities, Whitten said the decision on how to proceed is left up to the council. Council member Jeremy Rivas, D-2nd, said county economic development income tax money (CEDIT) money could play a role in a solution, as in the proposal he made last year where municipalities could give a portion of their CEDIT earnings until the county can absorb the E-911 budget into its general fund.

Questions came from council members as to what CEDIT money could be used for, whether it be salaries or operational costs. Whitten said this year’s budget hearings will start with a complete review of CEDIT fund projects to get a better idea of how the money is being used and possibly find areas where additional funds can be drawn from.

Council member Laura Blaney, D-at large, said the county commissioners’ approved an ordinance last week to use $1.2 million in extra undistributed CEDIT money from the state, which will buy the county about a year extra to come up with a remedy.

Rivas said to keep throwing out CEDIT money as a temporary fix is not a viable solution and the solution needs to be long-term. He asked that the county commissioners meet with Jokantas to work on a proposal that would entail a funding source to meet recurring costs.

Sitting in the audience, County Commissioner Nancy Adams, R-Center, said she would relay the request to the other commissioners. Whitten asked that the proposal be made in time for the council’s budget hearings.

Meanwhile, Biggs recommended drawing up questionnaires for each municipality to answer in regards to their budget and offer any input on how they would like the county to proceed. He said working side-by-side with the municipalities will be cost-effective.

Chesterton Town Manager Bernie Doyle welcomed the opportunity saying the town will be willing to offer their advice to the county.

“We have a lot of years of expertise,” Doyle said.

Biggs told the Chesterton Tribune afterward the meeting there are many “kinks” in the county’s 911 system that are in need of review such as the fact that the county for over a decade has been providing service to a few portions of Lake County free of charge. He feels it would be right to have the county first “get its house in order” so it can start working effectively with the municipalities.

Evans says it is best to wait

Porter County Commissioner President John Evans, R-North, told the Tribune this morning with the E-911 rainy day funds in the black until 2014, the county should wait to hear from the state in 2013 on its answer for a permanent funding mechanism. He said leaving it up to the board of commissioners to form a funding plan is a political move by the council members and that coming up with a sufficient plan would be “impossible” not knowing what the state will come up with in the future.

Evans said the council fails to take note of the improvements that have transpired in the last year under Jokantas’ leadership. The commissioners have been proactive in the improvements, he said, such as when the board agreed to purchase new radio systems for several fire stations.

“We’ve got a department that’s doing a great job and we’re going to get it funded,” Evans said.

 

 

Posted 4/25/2012