Archived Story

Cass County seeks E-911 millage Nov. 3 to gain local control from state

Published 4:33pm Wednesday, October 7, 2009


CASSOPOLIS – When Michigan developed a formula to estimate the number of phones in Cass County, 46,410 considerably overshot the actual amount, believed to be less than 40,000.

The state’s overestimation on the number of phones made the amount to charge for Enhanced 911 service too low, creating ongoing deficits in the county general fund of $157,258 in 2008 and $204,867 in 2009.

Cass County joined 20 counties in suing the state, but deficits continue to accumulate while that lawsuit is pending.

In the meantime, county officials debated which of two possible solutions to solve this problem not of their own making.

Nov. 3 they decided to ask permission from voters to levy what would be the county’s smallest property tax millage to offset deficits created by the state-mandated funding formula.

The alternative, asking permission from voters to boost the current phone surcharge, was rejected because “it’s still controlled by the State of Michigan. They’re in charge of that formula and can change it on us in 2012 when this sunsets,” according to Undersheriff Richard Behnke.

“I despise that some of that surcharge money goes to the state to fund the 911 director and Michigan State Police central dispatch and the phone companies, which take under 2 percent just for their troubles,” said Behnke, who appeared before the Board of Commissioners Oct. 1 with Sheriff Joe Underwood and Lt. Doug Westrick.

“Mind you,” he added, “before this came about, our phone surcharge was collected on a monthly basis. Now the phone companies get to keep our money for three months, put it in an account and earn interest off it, then send it to us. You can tell whose lobby was behind this formula, which changed in their favor. With the millage proposal, there is local control and the money stays in Cass County. Nothing goes to the state or the phone companies. It’s a more reliable source of funding to make delivery of services more consistent.”

Behnke, using Westrick’s five-phone family as an example, also asserted that the millage proposal could be less costly than the phone surcharge depending on the number of phones per household.

Each is charged the $1.18 surcharge.

“They’re still going to be if this millage proposal passes. This is to eliminate the deficit, not to replace the entire way we fund 911. We calculated it would be 85 or 90 cents we’d have to raise the surcharge. Ninety cents a month comes out to $10.80 a year, $20 a year for two phones. Doug, with five, $50 a year.

“It’s one fifth of a mill,” Behnke said. “That would be the lowest rate in Cass County for any project. And it’s ‘up to’ one fifth of a mill, which gives (commissioners) the authority to assess the amount necessary up to one fifth of a mill as needed. It’s for five years. It does not go on forever. It’s five years because we’re in an off-year election cycle. Five years puts us on an even cycle so we don’t have to have special elections.”

Officials throughout the state were concerned wireless customers were charged less than land line users.
The ill-fated funding formula was an attempt to “balance that out,” the undersheriff said. “It’s created a problem for 40 other counties. We’re not alone in this problem.”

Legislators enacted Public Act 164 changing the way phone surcharges were collected  to try to equalize what wireless customers and land lines paid.

Added to the mix since is VOIP, or Voice Over Internet Protocol.

In Cass County, before P.A. 164, land lines paid $2.40 per month, while wireless phones were charged 25 cents per device and VOIP, or computers, skated through free of charge.
After P.A. 164, land lines cost $1.18, cell phones $1.18 and VOIP $1.18.

“That achieved its goal,” Behnke said, “but it didn’t work in Cass County’s case. It was county population times .91 to come up with the number of homes they estimate are in Cass County. They took this same formula, whether you were Wayne County, Cass County or Lenawee County. We all know all counties are not the same. We told the Michigan Public Service Commission they were going to come out too high before they used this formula. We did actual surveys of our phone providers. Doug worked hard to get that information. We didn’t get all of it because some of them were reluctant to give us that information, but we knew we did not have 46,410 phones. The formula takes that number of  phones and our average budget we charged through the surcharge at central dispatch and divided it by 12 to come up with the monthly surcharge.”

Behnke said that’s another problem with the revenue stream since enactment of P.A. 164.
“It fluctuates”

Behnke said the projected $204,867 2009 deficit equates to almost 20 percent of the $850,000 budget.

Commissioner Ed Goodman, D-Silver Creek Township, invited Behnke to the Neighborhood Watch community awareness meeting Sept. 21.

Goodman said residents peppered the undersheriff with questions, but seemed to go away satisfied with his answers and were supportive.

One question sure to arise again as the proposal is presented at upcoming meetings is when the deficit jumps from $157,258 to $204,867 in one year, whether there might also need to be “cost control.”

“Fluctuating income created part of that,” Behnke answered Vice Chairman Ron Francis, R-Cassopolis.

“We don’t get the same amount from phone companies each quarter. We are at minimum staffing in the 911 center. If you have less than two dispatchers per shift, 911 calls could come in without being answered.”

Underwood, Behnke and Westrick detailed trends for the county board, such as the reversal in the number of land line and cell phone emergency calls.

Where the former outnumbered the latter “pretty significantly” in 2004, the opposite is true today.

“We’re getting many more cell phone calls than land line calls,” Behnke said.

One serious wreck at a major intersection such as M-60/M-40 in Jones, M-51/M-152 north of Dowagiac or Bell Road and U.S. 12 south of Niles can be called in “six, seven, eight, 12 calls for service” with mobile phones in most passing vehicles.

“In 2004,” Behnke said, “62 percent of 911 calls were from land lines. In 2008, 44 percent. Doug assures me that this year,” after wireless calls increased from 38 percent to 56 percent, their share will continue to climb.

With the local telephone surcharge the state Public Service Commission (PSC) approved insufficient to cover operational costs of Cass County’s Enhanced 911 emergency telephone service, voters will be asked Nov. 3 to approve up to a fifth of a mill ($.20) per $1,000 of all taxable property for five years beginning Dec. 1. The levy, which would raise an estimated $364,588 its first year, would expire Dec. 1, 2013.

This proposal will appear on the Nov. 3 ballot:
‘Shall the constitutional tax rate limitation in the County of Cass be increased by up to 1/5 mill ($.20) per thousand dollars against all taxable property in the County of Cass for a period of five years beginning with the Dec. 1, 2009, levy and ending with the Dec. 1, 2013, levy so as to provide funding for the operation of the ’9-1-1′ Central Dispatch? If approved and levied in its entirety on Dec. 1, 2009, this millage would raise an estimated $364,588 in the first year.”

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