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November 17, 2017
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Committee questions the lack of 911 user fee funds

By Tia Lyons
This article was published November 5, 2017 at 5:00 a.m.

As El Dorado City Council Finance Committee continue preparations for the 2018 city budget, city officials said they will work with Union County on shared revenues and expenditures.

Finance committee members recently discussed the matter with the police and fire departments, focusing on the fee the city pays to house city inmates in the Union County Jail and the city’s share of turnback funds that are paid for emergency/communication systems in the city and county.

More specifically, the finance committee questioned why payments have stopped for the city’s portion of funds that are generated through user fees that are paid to the state for 911 services.

The revenue is split among Public Service Answering Points across Arkansas.

The city and county have their own PSAPs, and the turnback funds that are allotted to Union County are divided with the city of El Dorado.

Alderwoman Dianne Hammond and Capt. Michael Leveritt, of the El Dorado Police Department, said the 911 user fees are collected from different revenue streams, including landlines, cellphones and prepaid wireless services.

They pointed out that 911 calls from cellphones have increased over the years and significantly outnumber calls that are generated through landlines.

Leveritt explained that years ago, there was only one 911 service in Union County and the operations were based in El Dorado.

“We had to transfer calls for them,” Leveritt explained.

He said the 911 system was split after former Union County Sheriff Ken Jones took office in 2003.

In 2007, the city and county negotiated a payment of $56,700 from 911 user fees collected from landline services, Hammond said, adding that the amount covered salaries for two city 911 dispatchers.

“They decided not to give that amount this year. We got it last year, but we did not receive it this year,” Leveritt said.

Hammond said she had spoken with County Treasurer Debbie Ray to learn more about the agreement and the revenues that are generated by the user fees.

“We need to get that agreement and find out what it’s all about. It can’t be that they’re just arbitrarily slicing turnback money,” Mayor Frank Hash said. “We need to be dialed into what’s going on there.”

Alderman Vance Williamson said he had also looked into the matter and learned that the turnback funds are paid to the county on a quarterly basis each year.

“They said the money is not there. Their response is the money is drying up,” Williamson said.

“That’s true to a certain extent because more people are using cellphones than landlines. The ($56,700) was put in the (2017 city) budget, but it did not come to pass,” Williamson continued.

Added Alderman Willie McGhee, “We were never notified that we weren’t going to receive the 911 money.”

Leveritt said there is a difference between user fees for cellphones and landlines.

For instance, the state levies a monthly user fee of 65 cents each for cellphones, which reportedly make up more than 90 percent of 911 calls Arkansas.

Landlines account for the remaining 10 percent.

“Wireless (user-fee revenue) comes directly to us. Landline does not. Landline goes straight to the county, and over the years, they’ve been giving us $56,700,” Leveritt said.

Fire Chief Chad Mosby said the bulk of 911 calls, landline or wireless, in Union County originate in the city of El Dorado.

Leveritt said revenue generated by the user fees are directed toward the maintenance of 911 systems.

“Whenever we get a call for maintenance, the bill goes to the city,” he said.

Leveritt and Hammond said the county collected $146,426 in 911 turnback revenues in 2016, and the city received $56,700.

He said the money is paid in a lump sum after the city sends a written request to the county at the start of each year.

Revenue projections for this year are $120,000 – $135,000, Leveritt said, adding that state lawmakers could possibly consider legislation that would call for one PSAP per county.

Jail

McGhee said the discussion about the 911 fees mirrored ongoing discussions about the fee the city pays to house city inmates in the county jail.

Last year, a committee comprised of city and county elected officials wrangled over the city’s request to change its jail fee to a flat, annual rate, rather than continue paying a cost-per- inmate.

The request came after the county had proposed an increase for the per capita amount to help cover rising jail costs.

City and county officials said at the time that their 2017 budgets were going to be tight.

McGhee said the jail committee had tried to determine if the original jail arrangement stemmed from a contract or gentlemen’s agreement.

“Is the county obligated to pay the 911 fee?” McGhee asked.

Williamson, who is part of the jail committee, said a 15-year agreement called for the county to share costs to operate the jail with municipalities around the county.

“Fifteen years has come and gone, and El Dorado and the county are the only two that are still sitting at the table,” Willamson said.

The county ultimately settled on the city’s offer of a $162,000 flat rate for 2017, with the understanding that the rate could be re-negotiated for 2018.

“If there’s any reduction in jail fees … even if jail fees decrease, I don’t want to lose that money,” Police Chief Billy White said.

White said the EPD is considering step/grade pay for civilian employees.

“We have a one-year clerk that’s making the same money as a 10-year clerk, and a one-year dispatcher making the same money as a 20-year dispatcher,” White said. “The jail is just a working number. I’d like to recover some of that, if I could.”

Tia Lyons may be contacted at 870-862-6611 or tlyons@eldoradonews.com.

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