One of Marshall County's neighboring communities is also in the midst of an overhaul of their locally-sourced 911 dispatch center and may soon see their elected officials discussing a fee-based system, among other options.
Calloway County Judge-Executive Kenneth Imes, former Kentucky State Rep., said the county's dispatch center recently separated from the City of Murray's dispatch and is now its own department that no longer answers to the sheriff's office, but answers directly to the Calloway County Fiscal Court (CCFC). He said Nathan Baird, who oversees the county's 911 center, is currently calculating what the center needs as far as equipment and manpower, then creating an operational budget so the county can pinpoint funding needs.
Imes said the estimated cost for funding the 911 center is $400,000-500,000.
"We want to make sure they have the right equipment but we're not trying to get all the bells and whistles," he explained. " We want him to have everything he needs but we don't have to have the latest and greatest. We just want to get a group devoted to assisting emergency situations to send appropriate help because seconds count in those situations."
"We will have to have a fee option," he added. "Nathan is working on coming up with a realistic budget so the fee is reasonable and something to start with--we don't want it too high but we also don't want it too low. We have to consider our elderly, our kids going to school and the people who don't have jobs. We want it to be fair, but it's got to be fair."
Once they've pinpointed a dollar amount, Imes said they'll begin drafting an ordinance. He said he's not sure yet which fee option the county might take but he and the commissioners will explore every viable option. He also said he anticipates some backlash and that when counties make changes such as the one Marshall County's Fiscal Court is currently undertaking, "lawsuits are to be expected."
"When you're first out of the box, you're going to get challenged," he said. "People don't realize how hamstrung counties are in that they can't do things cities can do. I spent 14 years in Frankfort as a state legislator and I didn't understand until I walked into this office how hamstrung you are with state law--you're trying to deal with one subject but three statutes in three different places tell you how you have to do it. We have to have our county attorney, general counsel and KACo (Kentucky Association of Counties) counsel reviewing what we do."
Regarding whether or not the CCFC would consider joining a regional effort in merging with Marshall County's E-911, Imes said he's unsure at this juncture.
"I think we would consider anything but I can't say we would or wouldn't, because it's all too new, which is the best way to do it," he said. "Are people in Hazel going to be comfortable with a 911 center in Draffenville? Dispatchers have to have familiarity with your area to be good."
Imes said just last week he met with Murray State University President Dr. Bob Jackson and three deans, discussing ways in which the entities can be mutually beneficial. Among the topics of discussion: the possibility of the university creating a program specifically designed to train dispatchers for a variety of professions including local 911, but also airplane and submarine traffic. The county could benefit from interns seeking experience and the students could benefit from hands-on training, he said.
"My family runs a funeral business and we used to run ambulances, too. Back in the day, I used to put oxygen on a guy and get the lights and sirens on and get him to the hospital as quickly as possible. Now, they want trained people in an ambulance who have a preliminary diagnosis by the time the patient reaches the hospital," he said. "As our services expand our people demand more service and it's something the government has to provide and take care of for the general populous, and we have to do it together. Right now the choices are government or subscription services. So government, with all its flaws and slowness in action, maybe we're starting to get there."
In addition to seeking funding options, Imes said they have to find a solution to an issue with triangulation and which dispatch center receives the call for help. He said there's a gap a few miles outside of city limits where the switch between county dispatch and city dispatch takes place--but often the caller gets the wrong center and then dispatchers scramble to get them to the proper channel.
But that's not the only funding issue facing the CCFC. Imes said during this week's fiscal court meeting, he would ask his commissioners to consider a 4% tax increase to bolster the general fund. He said Calloway County brings in about the same annually as Marshall County--roughly $2.5 million--but has 200 more miles of roadways to manage.
Imes said he's committed 95% of that increase to the roads and the remainder, if the commissioners take his recommendation as he intends to present it, will be split between animal control and code enforcement. He noted the county has hired Marshall County's roads superintendent Wendy Greer as an expert consultant "to get us caught up instead of staying where we've been in the last 50 years."
McCracken County Deputy Judge-Executive Steve Doolittle said the county and the City of Paducah partner in their 911 service which was established in the 1980s and continues to operate jointly. He said after each entity collects the landline phone fee and receives the cellular line fees from the state, each entity contributes a subsidy of approximately $500,000 annually from their general funds to cover remaining costs.
Doolittle said the fiscal court members and city councilmembers have discussed a change in funding mechanisms, noting the landline fee "has frankly become a tax on elderly people" because most younger people don't have landlines anymore. He said there are three options available for consideration and each has pros and cons: a fee attached to a utility, a fee on parcels of land collected with property taxes or an ad velorem tax.
"Utility fees are sort of regressive," he explained. "If Granny lives in a $20,000 small house, she's paying the same as Walmart; versus an ad velorem tax where what you pay is relative to the value of the property. So you have to decide philosophically, do you view this as a utility or as a tax on value. Both have their pros and cons."
Another consideration Doolittle noted in the fee versus tax consideration is exemptions for nonprofit organizations, hospitals and churches. He said those types of organziations are typically exempt from certain taxes but wouldn't be exempt from a fee.
"It's a policy that the respective elected officials at fiscal court and city council are going to have to decide," he added. "The trouble is, 911 got more expensive and is getting more expensive all the time."
Many years ago, Doolittle said, there wasn't much more technology than a phone and a radio. But as technology advances, so does the cost of operating the centers which utilize computer-generated dispatching and complex computer systems.
"Now, we're talking about taking texts and video from people as they send it in and it's a monumental issue finding out how to get that information to the dispatcher and then to the first responder, which costs money," he added. "We're looking at doing something different too and we haven't exactly settled on the approach. There are several different models and different options and we haven't decided which way we're going to go yet."
It's unlikely that direction would be a joint 911 dispatch center with Marshall County though, Doolittle said.
"We're already a joint facility. The county and the city went together in the late 1980s so we have history together as a joint 911 center. We've never been split and from the standpoint of a call volume, we're quite a bit bigger so I don't know that we're looking to do anything significantly different at this time," he said. "The only changes we're talking about at this point are the internal organization and how we're going to address the complicated issue of sustainable, fair and equitable funding going forward."
"Judge [Kevin] Neal and the [Marshall County] Fiscal Court, they're doing the responsible thing taking on the hard issue and trying to figure out how to deal with it," he added. "It's a problem everywhere. It's not unique to Marshall County, that's for sure."
Graves County contracts its 911 service through Kentucky State Police and in fiscal year 2018-2019 spent $92,414.32 for the service.