03/14/10 — Rules on 911 revenue chould change

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Rules on 911 revenue chould change

By Steve Herring
Published in News on March 14, 2010 1:50 AM

State Rep. Efton Sager of Goldsboro is optimistic that legislation defeated last year that would have eased restrictions on how 911 revenues may be used by local governments will gain renewed momentum during the upcoming short session of the General Assembly.

Sager serves on the House Select Committee on the Use of 911 Funds. The committee will meet Tuesday in Raleigh.

"So far, I like about everything that they (study groups) have recommended that would loosen those restrictions for a year. After a year the use would be more restricted," he said.

Currently, 911 revenues can be used only for equipment needed to receive incoming calls, not for equipment needed for outgoing calls.

Wayne County officials had hoped to be able to utilize $500,000 to $750,000 in those revenues to help pay for the county's $9.7 million emergency communications system.

The county has $1.9 million in 911 revenues that are disbursed by the state. However, that money cannot be used for the new communications systems.

"They (state) me told me if you can unplug the equipment and still receive calls that you cannot use the money," said Pam Holt, Wayne County's finance officer.

A Senate bill introduced last session failed to go anywhere.

That bill would have expanded use of the funds to include paying for the:

* Lease or purchase of real estate

* Cosmetic remodeling of emergency dispatch centers

* Hiring or compensating telecommunications

* Or the purchase of mobile communications vehicles, ambulances, fire engines or other emergency vehicles.

Other allowed uses would have included the lease, purchase or maintenance of emergency telephone equipment, including necessary computer hardware, database provisioning, addressing and non-recurring costs of establishing a 911 system, the lease or purchase of an additional communications tower, a multi-site simulcast system, microwave connectivity between the sites, site monitoring and alarm system, base stations, and grounding and lightning protection.

Sager said any new legislation would also try to make the law more "user friendly" as to what is allowed and what isn't.

Joe Gurley, director of the Wayne County Office of Emergency Management, attended a recent meeting of the committee and Sager said he hopes Gurley will be able to attend more meetings.

"One of the biggest things that we need to do is to listen to the people who use it," Sager said. "One thing about it, I think it will be one of the first bills introduced."

He also expects that the legislation could be approved before the start of the fiscal year.

One of the new recommendations concerns the monthly user fee. Wayne County residents currently pay $1.85 per month. One of the proposals would reduce the fee to 70 cents in 2011 and to 60 cents in 2012.

County Manager Lee Smith praised Sager and state Sen. Don Davis for their efforts on behalf of county's view of how the 911 money should be spent. He said if approved, the county would use some of the money on the radio system that now is being paid for mostly through a loan.

However, Smith said he would urge caution as far as reducing the user fee.

"If the state is over collecting, I would say to the state to be very careful about that fee," Smith said.

Counties and municipalities use the revenues to maintain the "backroom equipment" the communications systems require. As such it is important that the fee generates enough money to handle that cost, Smith said.

The only other way to pay those costs would be through sales or property taxes, he added.

Work on the new communications system is under way and plans call for it to be switched on in September. It includes some 1,600 radios for all of the county's fire, rescue and law enforcement agencies and new towers in Mount Olive and near Grantham.

Expanding the uses for 911 funds also is one of the top legislative goals for the North Carolina Association of County Commissioners.