Clark County weighs 9-1-1 tax, funding models vary across Ohio

6:06 p.m Wednesday, Nov. 29, 2017 Politics

Ohio counties pay for combined 9-1-1 dispatch centers in a variety of different ways, including sales taxes, property taxes and tax assessments — the method Clark County has proposed to pay for a new $4 million state-of-the-art combined emergency dispatch center in 2019.

Clark County commissioners held a public meeting Wednesday to discuss a proposed property tax assessment that would pay for a new countywide 9-1-1 dispatch center. A second meeting will be held at 10 a.m. Dec. 6 in the fifth floor public chamber of the Clark County Offices, 50 E. Columbia St.

RELATED: Here’s your chance to weigh in on proposed Clark County 9-1-1 tax

Commissioners have proposed a $60 annual flat fee parcel assessment to pay for the new dispatch center. The $4 million dispatch center will include renovations, security and new equipment, Clark County Commissioner Rick Lohnes said.

More counties are seeking tax money to pay for consolidated dispatching services because its extremely expensive to upgrade technology that can quickly surpass its useful life, said John Leutz of the County Commissioners Association of Ohio.

It can also handle a large volume of usage, meaning small jurisdictions can join together to create one large center, rather than several smaller centers, he said.

“You have the ability to handle a large volume of calls much more efficiently, so you’re getting much more effective use out of the equipment,” Leutz said. “That’s kind of what’s driving it.”

Combined, the Springfield and Clark County dispatch centers currently cost about $3 million to operate annually with about 35 full-time employees that field about 150,000 calls annually.

Regardless of how it’s paid for, officials throughout the state said 9-1-1 is a crucial service.

“When you think of public safety, we’re the first step,” Miami County 9-1-1 Director Jeff Busch said. “We’re the first responder because when they need help, they dial 9-1-1. They don’t get the help unless we’re there and do our job correctly.”

MORE: Clark County to spend $140K for consultant for combined 9-1-1 center

Assessment needed?

The proposed parcel assessment to pay for the Clark County combined center would likely save Springfield and the county about $1.5 million each in general fund tax dollars annually. The townships and the city of New Carlisle would also save money on dispatching annually, Lohnes said.

It’s the only option everyone has agreed upon at this point, Lohnes said. Other ideas have cost too much for the county’s general fund, he said.

The amount of the assessment is still to be determined but might be in the range of about $60 annually or about $5 per month. Commissioners also discussed up to $70 per parcel.

Any tract of land that’s been improved, such as a building, driveway or structure, will be assessed the same fee, leaders said. Clark County currently has about 59,500 improved parcels.

The combined dispatch center is necessary, local attorney Dan Harkins said, but the county has enough money in its general fund to pay for the service.

“It should occur as a tax savings, not as a tax increase,” he said. “From a tax policy perspective, (the assessment) doesn’t reflect the use of the call center and it doesn’t reflect the ability of people to pay.”

The county could pay for the dispatch center, Lohnes said, but it would harm other offices. The county general fund can’t afford to pay the extra $1.8 million to cover what the city of Springfield and townships currently pay for dispatching, Lohnes said, especially with an upcoming loss of about $3.1 million due to federal sales tax changes.

“Without an additional funding mechanism, the county is not going to be able to afford paying for the city,” Lohnes said. “We weigh that against the need for the new 9-1-1 system.”

Miami County

The Miami County Communication Center dispatches for all police, fire and EMS departments in Miami County. It has 24 full-time employees with a $3.2 million budget, Busch said.

FIRST REPORT: Property tax bills may go up to pay for new Clark County 9-1-1 center

The center dispatched services nearly 91,600 times and received a total of about 141,000 phone calls last year, including 65,000 9-1-1 calls, he said.

A 0.25-percent sales tax pays for the entire operation, Busch said, which is re-evaluated annually based on the center’s budget.

“Anyone who buys anything in the county is paying for the service — whether it’s somebody passing through who stops and eats at a restaurant — because they are potentially a user of 9-1-1 if they get into an accident,” he said.

The communications center has been operational since 1989 with an advisory committee, Busch said. If the center was separate, each city in Miami County — Tipp City, Troy and Piqua — would each likely need five dispatchers to run a 24/7 operation, he said.

“It saves all of the cities and communities a lot of money because they don’t have to directly pay,” he said.

Marion County

In 2015, the city of Marion and Marion County decided to combine dispatching services to save money and improve service, Marion County Commissioner Ken Stiverson said. The operation costs about $1.1 million annually with 16 full-time employees who answer about 60,000 calls annually.

RELATED: Clark County employees will see health care cost increase in 2018

The city of Marion has a contract with the county and pays about $520,000 annually. The two parties plan to renegotiate the contract based on the number of calls, he said.

“It’s been working very well,” Stiverson said. “The chief of police and sheriff talk a lot and work out any problems they have. Response times have been improved greatly. We were having to transfer calls and it didn’t work too well.”

The city of Marion spent about $1 million and the county spent about $300,000 annually when the dispatch centers were split, he said. The county pays about $250,000 more under the current deal and uses what it generates from its 7.25 percent sales tax, Stiverson said.

“My personal theory is that all the people of Marion County pay sales tax and that’s where we generate our revenue,” he said. “It’s just a service we need to provide. We’ve been able to (pay for it) so far. Maybe in the future we won’t be able to do it without some kind of a tax levy but for the next few years, we’re good.”

‘One public safety answering point’

Champaign County’s dispatch center opened in 2006 and costs about $1 million annually to operate with about 17 total employees, 9-1-1 Coordinator Vannessa Haley said.

MORE: Clark County plan includes combined 9-1-1 dispatch, modernized fairgrounds

“It makes sense that there would be one public safety answering point where the public knows when I call, this is where my call is going and they’re not being transferred,” said Haley, who previously worked as a dispatcher in Clark County for 16 years. “It streamlines the operations for all of the agencies, really. They’re able to go to a central point.”

Champaign County’s dispatch center is paid for with a 1-mill property tax levy that was renewed in 2013 after failing in 2012.

Montgomery County Regional Dispatch Center, which launched in 2009, switched from charging jurisdictions a price per dispatch to a fixed fee, increasing costs for smaller agencies. Since then five suburban agencies have withdrawn from the combined center and joined smaller dispatch centers.

The regional center still dispatches for about 70 percent of the county, Montgomery County Sheriff’s Capt. Jay Wheeler said. Transferring calls happens everywhere, he said.

“Ninety-nine times out of 100, it’s right but if we have to transfer something, it’s quick,” Wheeler said. “It’s an easy, easy process.”

The Delaware County Emergency Communications 9-1-1 Center consolidated in 2010. It spends about $4 million annually to operate with 30 full-time employees that answer about 110,000 calls annually. The center is paid for with a 0.63 mill property tax levy, Director Patrick Brandt said, including a recent increase of 0.18 mills last year to keep the county from subsidizing 9-1-1 from its general fund.

The center answers all 9-1-1 calls for the county, and also dispatches for 13 fire departments, Delaware County EMS and EMA, as well as the Delaware City and Powell Police departments.

The Delaware County Sheriff’s Office maintain dispatchers separate from the countywide dispatch center, but has a co-location agreement — meaning they’re in the same room as Delaware County’s dispatchers, Brandt said. Emergency calls to the sheriff’s office are currently transferred to their dispatchers, Brandt said.

“The cost savings isn’t there to do more work to justify (combining the dispatchers),” he said. “We’re both in the same room and the equipment is all the same. … We have no concerns.”

Around Ohio

Seven counties — including Fulton, Guernsey, Hardin, Jefferson, Lorain, Knox and Morrow counties — all sought tax renewals or increases for 9-1-1 dispatch services at the polls last month.

MORE: Clark County to spend $140K for consultant for combined 9-1-1 center

Fulton, Guernsey, Hardin, Jefferson and Lorain all passed renewal or additional property tax levies ranging from 0.3 to 1.5 mills annually. Knox County renewed its quarter-percent sales tax to pay for dispatch services.

Morrow County currently has a $25 per parcel assessment, similar to the proposed funding model in Clark County. Morrow County asked voters to approve a $25 increase to $50 per parcel but it was rejected by voters.

It’s a local decision on how to pay for 9-1-1 and all are viable options, Leutz said. Some counties have also purchased what Leutz calls “a black box,” a central technology point where it recognizes where the call goes and sends it directly where it should be.

He expects to see more local levies for combined 9-1-1 because of the cost of new technology, including mobile units and computer-aided dispatching.

“All of it is expensive,” Leutz said. “The territory you bring in, the more understanding your call center folks have and emergency responders have, it’s easier to do it and more cost effective because you only have that level of technology and it covers a bunch of folks well because there’s plenty of capacity to do that.”

TIMELINE

July 2013: Unified dispatch center plan moves forward

September 2013: Casino money might help pay for combined dispatch

March 2014: County dispatch to save German Twp. $30K

May 2014: Unified dispatch center technology to cost millions

September 2015: Combined 9-1-1 system on hold for Springfield, Clark County

June 2016: Report urges Springfield, county to look at merged government options

September 2016: New Clark County 11 system will soon allow emergency texts

August 2016: State Auditor: Clark County could be test case for shared services

January of 2017: Clark County, Springfield still mulling combined dispatch center

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