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To Cover 911 Costs, Kentucky Counties Seek Wireless Surcharge Hike Option

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Bill Bradford/Creative Commons
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The 911 services throughout Kentucky are straining county budgets because of an outdated funding mechanism, county government representatives told state legislators on Wednesday.

The 911 systems operating in Kentucky are funded through surcharges on landline and wireless phones. Counties can adjust the surcharge on landlines but not the wireless surcharge, which has been 70 cents per month since 1998.

From 2000 to 2010, Kentucky saw a 17 percent drop in landline subscriptions and a 263 percent increase in mobile subscriptions, according to the Federal Communications Commission.

The trend means the budgets of 911 services are increasing dependent on revenue from counties, said Jim Henderson, president-elect of the Kentucky Association of Counties.

“We have to have a system that evolves with that to make sure we’re tapping the funding sources of all the users of the service," said Henderson, who is also the judge-executive for Simpson County.

On Tuesday, Henderson asked legislators to increase the wireless surcharge from 70 cents to “just a little over a dollar” per month and to expand the surcharge to other devices.

Landline surcharges vary across the state, from less than $1 in some counties to more than $1 elsewhere, according to a 2012 KAoC study.

But increasing the wireless surcharge may not be the only answer.

There are 114 dispatching centers across the state, 16 of which are operated by Kentucky State Police posts. Those centers provide communications for 537 local police, fire and ambulance units.

Henderson said some county officials would be interested in consolidating 911 services into the state police posts — if it meant counties wouldn’t have to pay for the services.

“Our budgets are tight so I think there’s an interest in that, but we still need financial help to make that transition work,” Henderson said.

Republican lawmakers pressed county officials toward consolidating services over increasing the surcharge.

“Regionalization of those kinds of functions would bring a great deal of efficiency back to the state budget,” said state Rep. Phil Moffett, a  Louisville Republican.

“We want to get feedback from you saying, ‘We really shouldn’t be doing this individually in each county — we should be doing that amongst a group of counties,’ a regional concept for doing this.”

State Rep. Stan Lee, a Lexington Republican, agreed.

“The citizens are extraordinarily weary of being taxed to death on every little bill they get,” Lee said, hinting that the administration of incoming Republican Gov. Matt Bevin will lead to budget-tightening.

“I think now would be an opportune time," Lee said. "A lot of change going on around here to look for ways to be more efficient in what you do.”

But counties have other options for increasing revenue for 911 services besides increasing the surcharge.  In October, the Kentucky Supreme Court ruled that counties can levy fees on residential units to pay for 911 services. Passed in 2013, Campbell County currently charges $45 per house or apartment to pay for its dispatch services.

Ryland Barton is the Managing Editor for Collaboratives. Email Ryland at rbarton@lpm.org.