Hawkins 911 may lose state funds due to county cuts

Jeff Bobo • Sep 4, 2008 at 12:00 AM

ROGERSVILLE — Hawkins County commissioners may be reminded of the old saying “spend a dollar to save a dime” when they find out how much a 10 percent cut to Hawkins County 911 funding might end up costing the county.

In a nutshell, Hawkins County 911 might lose so much state funding that it stops its dispatching services completely and places that responsibility on the county’s police, fire and rescue agencies.

On Aug. 25, the county commission approved its 2008-09 fiscal year budget including an across-the-board 10 percent cut of all contributions. That meant the county’s annual contribution to 911 would be cut by $14,000 from $140,000 to $126,000.

Gay Murrell, Hawkins County 911 director, was contacted Thursday morning by the Tennessee Emergency Communications Board (TECB) and notified of the potential consequences of that county funding cut.

Cutting local funds to an agency which also receives state funding constitutes a breach of maintenance of effort, and typically results in a very real threat of state funding cuts.

One possibility is the elimination of a $120,000 “bonus” from the state which was Hawkins County’s share of a $14 million stipend approved by the General Assembly this year for 911 agencies statewide. Hawkins 911 is using that money to help pay for a new dispatching center now under construction in Rogersville.

On Thursday that project was suspended by the Hawkins 911 Board of Directors — an action which was “strongly recommended” by the TECB.

Also at risk is a portion of funding from the 911 surcharge fee that telephone customers pay on their monthly bills. Over the course of a year, Hawkins County 911 receives just under $250,000 in telephone 911 surcharge fees.

On Thursday, Murrell and Hawkins 911 Board Chairman Kevin Cassidy were ordered to appear before the TECB on Nov. 20 to find out the full extent of the state funding cuts.

TECB Executive Director Lynn Questell told the Times-News Thursday, however, that this problem can go away if the Hawkins County Commission agrees to restore 911 funding to $140,000.

“The Emergency Communications Board takes it very, very seriously when counties reduce their support for 911, particularly in cases like Hawkins County where the 911 district is doing dispatching for the county,” Questell said. “Before 911 was created, dispatching was local government’s responsibility, and 911 was never meant to absorb all of dispatching costs. Ideally they work cooperatively.

“But this is an even more egregious situation because Hawkins County’s emergency communications district was deemed financially distressed in 2001, and so the (TECB) stepped in and increased the 911 surcharge rates because of that.”

Questell said one action the county could expect from the TECB would be to reset the monthly 911 surcharge rates to what they were prior to 2001 when the TECB agreed to increase them from 65 cents to 90 cents for residential customers and from $2 to $2.25 for business customers.

“It’s very important for counties to maintain their support of 911,” Questell said. “We weren't asking them to raise their support, but after the (TECB) has allowed a district to raise its land line rates to defray the cost of providing 911 service, the (TECB) looks very seriously at counties that reduce their contribution to 911. What does that do?

“Basically that’s saying here’s a service charge for 911, and we’re going to make that cover something that tax dollars have been covering. It’s basically using 911 as a backdoor tax and the (TECB) is very opposed to that in principle and practice.”

Another possibility is the state 911 board could force Hawkins County 911 to consolidate with a neighboring district. That happened recently in Overton and Pickett counties when Pickett became financially distressed and failed to meet maintenance of effort. Now the 911 system for both counties is operated in Overton County.

Union County also recently attempted to cut local 911 funding, and upon facing state cuts agreed to restore its local 911 funding.

And then there’s the possibility that Hawkins 911 could stop dispatching, and simply transfer 911 calls to the various fire, police and rescue agencies across the county. Murrell told the Hawkins 911 Board Thursday that’s a real possibility if state funding cuts occur at expected levels.

That would leave all emergency services with the responsibility of dispatching their own people to the scene of a 911 call.

“The people who are going to suffer over this are the 56,000 citizens of Hawkins County,” Cassidy said. “We’re talking about precious seconds here when someone’s house is on fire, someone’s life is at risk, someone is trapped in a car, or God forbid a child falls in the lake and needs to be rescued — and we’ve got to take these extra steps to get them help.”

Questell noted that the cost of starting individual dispatching services would be monumental, especially considering that there’s already a perfectly good dispatching center available.

“Under state law, local 911 districts are not required to dispatch,” Questell said. “They can choose to relay or transfer, and then the expense of maintaining a dispatch center goes to the county, which I can assure you would be extremely expensive to recreate. What a tremendous waste of taxpayer money to save $14,000.”

The Hawkins 911 board agreed Thursday to authorize Murrell to speak about this problem to the County Commission’s Budget Committee, and the commission itself, during their respective meetings later this month.

During the Aug. 25 County Commission meeting, the commission was made aware that its proposed $9,000 cut of the county’s library system would result in the loss of about $98,000 in state funding and materials including about half the system’s books. Subsequently the commission voted to replace those funds in the budget.

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