Fiscal Court considers new 911 fee ordinance

RACHEL KELLER COLLINS/The Tribune-Courier

West Kentucky Rural Electric Company President and CEO David Smart (left) and WKRECC legal counsel Greg Carter attended the Oct. 16 Marshall County Fiscal Court meeting.

Representatives of Marshall County's electric companies say changes to a 911 fee ordinance last week by the Marshall County Fiscal Court do little to make the arrangement more enticing.

The most notable change heard during the first reading in last week's meeting is to the section which outlines compensatory requirements, which initially stated if retaining 3% of the funds collected did not adequately cover the cost of the collections process the electric companies could request an alternative compensation agreement. The newest version states the electric companies may petition the fiscal court for additional withholdings. In order to receive the additional withholdings, the electric companies would have to provide supporting evidence and the fiscal court "may agree" to it after determining the 3% doesn't provide full compensation.

But that process essentially allows the fiscal court to set a rate and rate structure for the electric companies, said Jackson Purchase Energy Vice President of Human Resources and Communications Scott Adair, which is the crux of the electric companies' issue with the fee structure.

"Our regulatory authority is the Public Service Commission and we have to appeal to them to set our rates, but this would essentially allow Marshall County to set our rates for us and, we would also have a different rate structure for Marshall County than we would for any of the other counties we serve," he explained.

Adair said while JPEC does not yet know exactly how much it would cost the electric companies for collections, they're sure that cost will be in excess of $1,000, which is roughly what they could expect from 3% of the 5,000 meters in Marshall County. He said they're looking at having to hire at least one additional employee to manage the administrative duties, software systems and equipment to manage sorting the funds for the county's fees from the funds for the service provided, separate billing and separate postage for those bills because the funds can't be commingled--and then what to do when customers send in one check covering both the cost of the service and the fee, which now has to be separated because the companies are statutorily prohibited from commingling those funds.

"There are ripple effects that are going to result in a ton of cost and we know that cost will be far above and beyond the 3%," he added. "We fully support 911 and we realize the importance of 911--we just think there's a better way."

Adair said the county, if the court rules this method of fee collection is valid and allows it to move forward, is quadrupling its own administrative fees when it could just add a line item to a mechanism that's already up and running and works--the property tax bill issued by the Property Valuation Administration (PVA). He explained that if each of the electric companies which serve Marshall County, JPEC, West Kentucky Rural Electric, Benton Electric and Tennessee Valley Authority, have to charge the county for the cost of collections, that's funding collected which could remain with the county.

And JPEC is only looking at what it would take to break even, Adair added, further explaining the company is not interested in making money from the collections and is wholly opposed to the collections process outlined in the proposed ordinance.

"Private organizations collecting for a government, that's not right," he said. "We support the fact that 911 needs to be better funded; we agree with that, we just think there's a better way and if you can pay administrative costs one time and get the same product it just makes more sense. This way doesn't make sense. This is just the wrong way to do it."

In a written statement released to the media Adair stated, "We are very disappointed that the fiscal court continues to try and pass this ordinance despite the concerns we have shared, especially the high costs associated with collecting fees through multiple private organizations and our lack of authority to enforce payment. …We will continue to stand up for our consumer-members and fight the county's attempts to fund 911 through local electric companies."

JPEC and WKRECC jointly filed suit against the Marshall County Fiscal Court in early Sept. asking the United States District Court for injunctive relief that would prevent their collection of the 911 fees on behalf of the fiscal court. On Sept. 27, Senior Judge Thomas B. Russell with the U.S. District Court Western District of Kentucky in Paducah filed an agreed order stating the electric companies are not to enforce the county's 911 ordinance imposing the electric meter fee, pending further action by the court.

The initial ordinance imposing the $7 per month fee tacked onto each electric meter in the county, which passed with a split vote in Aug., will be repealed and replaced with the new one reviewed during the Oct. 16 meeting, according to Marshall County Attorney Jason Darnall. The ordinance will have to pass with a majority vote during the next meeting scheduled for Nov. 12.

The $7 monthly fee is set to fund the $1.9 million annual Marshall County E-911 budget, which county officials have said won't go into effect until/if the collections of the fee begins.

Commissioner Kevin Spraggs voted in opposition of the fee and the 911 budget, expressing concern both were in excess of what was needed. Commissioners Monti Collins and Justin Lamb, along with Marshall County Judge-Executive Kevin Neal, voted in favor of both.

In other business:

• The fiscal court approved two new hires for 911, both of whom Deputy Judge-Executive Brad Warning said were replacement personnel; one was approved a pay rate of $16.75 per hour and one was approved a pay rate of $13.70 per hour. They also approved a hew hire for animal control, which Warning said was also replacement personnel, for a pay rate of $10.55 per hour.

• The fiscal court members voted in favor of the second reading of the bond ordinance which allows the county to apply for a loan not to exceed $7.3 million for various county projects.

• The fiscal court members approved surplus of a 2006 suburban which was previously part of the fleet of the Marshall County Coroner's Office, but recently caught fire near the engine. Warning said he's waiting for final word from Kentucky Association of Counties (KACo) regarding insurance coverage but believes the vehicle is totaled. In the meantime, the coroner's office is utilizing a backup vehicle, which is an out-of-commission ambulance. Warning said Enterprise Fleet, which manages the county's vehicle fleet system, is currently in the process of building a new vehicle for the coroner's office.