After four surcharges, Cass seeks fifth of millPublished 8:52am Wednesday, October 28, 2009
By JOHN EBY
Dowagiac Daily News
Cass County voters four times approved a telephone surcharge on phone bills to fund Enhanced-911 emergency telephone service.
But in seeking the county’s smallest millage, a fifth of a mill, or 20 cents per $1,000 of taxable value, on Tuesday, Nov. 3, Cass has considerable company in going that route for E-911.
Berrien, Van Buren and St. Joseph counties rely on millages.
“It seems like we were the only ones in this area just using a surcharge to fund 911,” Undersheriff Rick Behnke said.
E-911 allows people to dial one number for police, fire and ambulance emergencies.
Behnke explained the proposal Oct. 26 to Dowagiac City Council, starting by encapsulating Central Dispatch, which serves every emergency service provider in the county for 911 and dispatch.
SMCAS, Southwestern Michigan Community Ambulance Service in Niles, has its own dispatch calls are turned over to when received by 911.
“Not only do we serve all the public service agencies as far as emergency service, but we are also called for the Road Commission, we call city departments for things happening in the night and after-hours on-call for Family Independence Agency (Department of Human Services), as well as several other organizations,” Behnke related.
Cass County has had E-911 since 1992.
“We were one of the first counties in this area to have Enhanced-911, which means we get the location when we get the call; 911 is very important.”
Behnke recalled how the state began addressing inequities of 911 funding a few years ago.
“The problem was, wireless phones became more popular. In 2004, we still had more landline calls than wireless. In 2008, we surpassed landline calls with wireless calls. When I was 911 supervisor here in Cass County five years ago, it was being addressed then.
“The real inequity, in Cass County’s case, was that landline calls paid $2.40. Wireless callers paid 50 cents, of which only 25 cents came to Cass County. That inequity, with one group paying more than the other, didn’t appear to be appropriate. The state, after several years of discussion, enacted Public Acts 164 and 165. The goal was to make all devices equal in how they were assessed surcharges. That was successful. In Cass County’s case it became $1.18 for landline phones, wireless phones and computer phones (VOIP). The problem is the Public Service Commission used a formula of population times .91 to estimate the number of phone lines. In Cass County’s case, 46,000 phones. We knew there weren’t that many and told the PSC that. We went to the phone companies, but they wouldn’t give us the information we needed to prove our case. When we got our first money coming in, we noticed we only had about 40,000 phones in Cass County.”
That discrepancy created a $157,258 budget shortfall in 2008 and an estimated $204,867 for 2009 in an $819,185 annual budget.
“The Board of Commissioners over the past two years authorized funds from the budget stabilization fund, as well as fund balances left over each year, to help alleviate” this shortfall.
“But those funds are drying up, so we asked the Dispatch Authority Board to look into other possible solutions,” Behnke said. “Does the Board of Commissioners want to come out right now in these economic times and do a millage? No. By the same token, we don’t want to rob from the county budgets to fund 911.”
“It’s getting to the point where we going to have to look at cutting somewhere to fund 911,” he added. “We cut a technical adviser position which helped maintain information coming in. Now that’s being split up between dispatchers and the supervisor,” Lt. Doug Westrick.
“It is ‘up to one fifth of a mill,’ ” the undersheriff stressed. “They don’t have to assess the full amount. In the 12 prior presentations I gave, everyone said, ‘They’ll always do the full amount.’
“I challenge that because the county Board of Commissioners has been good with the 911 surcharges in the past, so I assume they would be the same with the millage proposal here. In the 16 years prior, they were able to assess up to $4 on a monthly phone bill. Up until 2004, they were under $2 per month. They were assessing well below half the maximum they could assess.”
The surcharge only reached $2.40 its past three years, according to Behnke.
“The Board of Commissioners has a 16-year track record of not taking all it can get and only assessing proper amounts to the people of Cass County,” he assured council members.
This millage would raise an estimated $364,588 the first of five years beginning with the Dec. 1, 2009, levy and ending with the Dec. 1, 2013, levy.
For a house with a true cash value of $40,000, the levy would cost $4; $100,000, $10; $160,000, $16; and $200,000, $20.
“With the phone surcharge we were looking at assessing 90 cents to help alleviate this deficit,” he said. “Ninety cents per month is $10.80. I have three phone lines at my house. Our dispatch director has five. Under a phone surcharge, he was looking at paying about $50 a year, instead of $15. We feel this is the cheapest, most beneficial way to attack this issue. It gives us a better, constant source of funding without the state messing with it.”