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Measure proposes to help 911 costs

By Sue Sitter - | Sep 5, 2020

Sue Sitter/PCT Dispatcher Nancy Schneibel works on a report at the Pierce County Law Enforcement Center.

A measure to raise fees for 911 services on telephones in Pierce County will go before voters for the second time in six years in the Nov. 3 general election.

Pierce County Measure 1 proposes a 50-cent increase on the current $1 fee for local 911 services. The text of the ballot measure said the increase would be “applied to all assessed communications services (telephone access line, wireless access line and unique voice over internet protocol service).” If passed, the fee increase would begin Jan. 1, 2021.

According to Pierce County Auditor Karin Fursather, 47 of North Dakota’s 53 counties, representing more than 82 percent of the state’s population, have already passed a 50-cent increase on telephone fees to pay for 911 system upgrades.

Carrie Vallier, who coordinates 911 services for Pierce County said,” There are a lot of costs involved with (911 system upkeep). Costs have gone up considerably. Technology has changed. We now have a text to 911 service. That service comes with our equipment.”

Vallier showed a small, box-shaped piece of recording equipment in the dispatch office at the Pierce County law enforcement center. “This was purchased in 2014,” she said. “It cost $16,000.”

“People don’t want to pay more phone fees,” Vallier said, adding increases in costs and fees to Pierce County would eventually mean more costs to taxpayers for 911 services if telephone fees weren’t raised.

“In 2019, we only took in $51,380 (in 911 telephone fees),” Fursather noted. “Our expenses were $57,810. So, we’re running short. We just paid the state information technology department. “We pay for broadband; it’s for the recurring 911 retexting, all that – we pay $42,150 per year (to the state). So, we don’t have a lot of money.”

Both Fursather and Vallier said the future of Pierce County’s 911 service is uncertain without the fees needed to upgrade and maintain the system. “Right now, the 911 service justifies keeping a 24-hour emergency dispatch center open,” Vallier said.

Fursather said a mill levy increase could help bring in revenue to pay for 911 services and keep the center open.

“We have transferred money from the general fund in previous years to get this account so it wasn’t in the red,” Fursather said. “So, if we had to take more from the general fund, we’d be taxing the people more, because, if we needed 10 to 20 thousand dollars more, we’d be increasing the mill levy to offset these costs.”

“But that all comes from your property taxes,” Vallier pointed out, noting not all 911 users own real estate.

“The 50 cent per month fee would be more fair,” Vallier added. “Just about everybody has one phone, if not more.”

“By getting (revenue from a fee increase), we won’t have to increase our general fund, but if we keep getting behind – because we don’t have a lot of money in the accounts – if we transfer out of the wireless fund to offset some of our costs and nothing is done (about paying for cost increases by increasing fees), we’ll have to increase taxes even more,” Fursather added.

Fursather said Pierce County is already bracing for a plan to upgrade North Dakota state radio.

“The SIRN 20/20 (state radio upgrade project) is going to cost the county $300,000,” Fursather noted.

Fursather said the state radio project was separate from regular local 911 maintenance and system upgrades and costs for that project are separate from those included in the proposed fee increase.

Vallier said other counties use dispatchers from areas such as Bismarck to route calls. Vallier said she hoped local 911 dispatch services would stay in Pierce County.

“When a call is dispatched from outside the area) it’s got so many more channels to go through. A call is routed (to a remote dispatcher), then, they have to page someone here, and that takes time,” Vallier said.

Vallier said dispatchers “shouldn’t have trouble (finding an incident’s location) in a perfect world, because it should all pop up on the same map as we use, but, if you talk to some of our officers, they like to have a local person right there talking to them.”

Vallier and Fursather said telephone users living in Pierce County can support their local 911 service by making sure the fees they already pay stay in the county.

“If people pay fees (on out of area phone numbers), the money may be going somewhere else,” Vallier noted.

Fursather agreed. “If (a phone number) is not local, or if (a phone user) came from somewhere else, the money goes to another county.”

“If people move here, they should call (their telephone service provider) and say they really want their fees to go to Pierce County,” Vallier said. “We want to stress that. When people move here and their cell phone comes from somewhere else, they usually don’t change (where their fees go).”

“You should ask your cell phone carrier where (your fees) are going,” Vallier added.

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