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3/1/2012 8:59:00 AM
Bills to increase 911 fees could take control from county governments

Maribeth Vaughn, Daily Reporter

GREENFIELD — Hancock County officials have long asked the state for a solution to what they say is a funding dilemma for the Emergency Operations Center as the number of telephone landlines decreases and the number of cell phones increases.

Now that two such bills are wending their way through the Legislature, the council is wondering whether it should have been more careful about what it wished for.

The bills could change telephone fees too radically, said Councilman Jim Shelby, perhaps even lower them to the point that the county will lose more revenue as technology costs increase. And they would take local control of the fees out of the county’s hands.

Shelby now wishes the bills would just die.

“Kill them all, and let each county come up with their own remedy,” he said.

Fees on cell phones would increase, while fees on landlines would decrease under proposals being debated in the final days of the Indiana General Assembly.

Telephone fees largely fund dispatch centers like the one in Hancock County. Monthly landline and cell phone bills include fees for local 911 support.

But it’s a disparity in the fees that has had local and state officials wondering whether something needs to change to make funding more stable.

Currently, cell phones have a 50-cent monthly fee for 911 services. Prepaid mobile phones have a 25-cent fee, and Hancock County has a landline rate of $2.20 per month.

Plans debated in the Statehouse would take away the local control on landline fees. Rather, it would make fees for all telephones equal.

The House approved a plan Tuesday that would put the monthly fee for most phones at 75 cents, which is 25 cents higher than the current cell phone rate. The Senate passed a version on Wednesday setting the fee at $1.

“It’s going to go to conference committee and they’ll have to work out the two differences,” said Rep. Bob Cherry, R-Greenfield.

Cherry said telephone fees have been hard to understand because it’s difficult to get information from telephone companies. Still, he believes the disparity between landline and mobile phone fees would close and may help counties.

“No county will get less money,” Cherry said.

The Indiana Association of Counties estimates 911 fee revenue has dropped about $20 million in five years. State lawmakers say they’re trying to stabilize funding for 911 services as people shift away from landline phones.

But in Hancock County, landline revenue has remained fairly steady from 2007 to 2010. They decreased in 2011 by about 7 percent, or $49,000, from 2010.

Wireless revenue has been on the rise in the last four years, and increased in 2011 by $15,000 from the year before. In total, both landline and mobile phone revenue in 2011 decreased by about $34,000 to from the previous year.

Even though 2011 showed a decrease in revenues, the total of $878,810 is that’s similar to telephone revenues raised from 2007 to 2010.

The problem is, Hancock County Councilwoman Rosalie Richardson says, the dispatch center has had many expenses in recent years.

She said the county would need $1 million in annual telephone revenues to sustain it.

“Technology is more expensive than we thought,” she said.

The county also gets $380,000 from the city of Greenfield every year for the EOC.

“E-911 has always been running over budget,” Richardson said. “All in all, it’s more than we bargained for.”

Richardson said changing the fees to 75 cents or even $1 could decrease revenue. She said landlines in Hancock County have not been decreasing as much as in other counties in recent years, so by taking the landline fee down significantly, overall the center’s revenue could decrease.

Shelby has calculated the impact locally if fees are changed across the board to $1.

“We’d lose about $123,000 from the get-go,” Shelby said.

Using 2011 figures, Shelby estimates revenue would decrease to $745,000 from the current $878,800.

“We’d make up the difference between the revenues and the budget by laying people off or increasing taxes,” he said.

Increasing taxes is just what the Hancock County Council did last fall to make up for what they predicted would be shortfalls in several of the county’s budgets.

The local option income tax was increased by 0.10 percent. While the county gets additional revenue for public safety from that hike, cities and towns are also getting more money.

County council members have been asking town councils to chip in half of their LOIT revenue increase to the EOC. Only Cumberland and Greenfield have agreed.

Shelby recognizes that telephone revenue trends don’t show a notable downward spiral in recent years. He said that’s probably because of growth in the county in recent years.

Still, he noted the revenue decreases from 2010 to 2011, and said that trend would likely continue.

Sen. Beverly Gard, R-Greenfield, said she doesn’t disagree with Shelby.

“It will never happen, just because of the control people like to have around here,” Gard said.

She voted in favor of the bill Wednesday, and said both versions will be worked out in a conference committee.

She said there’s a provision that would mean counties would not get less revenue than what they are getting now. She doesn’t know the details, but said Hancock County government should be seeing at least the same amount in phone fees than what they are getting now.

“It may not be enough, but it’s all they’re going to get,” she said.

The Associated Press contributed to this story

Related Stories:
• Indiana Legislature considering higher 911 fees
• New law signed by Daniels aims to stop 'bleeding' of 911 fees in Hoosier counties

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