911 Center needs more revenue

Blair County leaders say state lawmakers must come through with higher fees on phone and Internet services because the current charges aren’t generating enough revenue.

Those fees, collected by the state and passed onto Blair County, now pay for about 30 percent of the 911 Center department’s $1.9 million annual budget, 911 Director Mark Taylor said Friday. Blair County real estate tax revenue covers the other 70 percent, so county leaders are suggesting a minimum monthly fee of $1.75 per device.

If state lawmakers fail to come through higher fees to support the operation of 911 centers, counties will have to increase real estate taxes or ask municipalities to help cover costs, Blair County Commissioner Diane Meling said.

She and Taylor addressed local lawmakers about the pending dilemma during a Friday morning presentation where they outlined the county’s efforts to keep the center equipped and staffed to handle about 80,000 calls a year or about 220 daily.

State Sen. John H. Eichelberger Jr., a member of the Senate’s communications and technology committee, said he believes lawmakers will renew the legislation permitting the levy of fees on cellular or Internet devices capable of making 911 calls. That act is due to expire June 30.

But the debate over increasing fees and how that revenue is distributed, Eichelberger, R-Blair, predicted, will likely extend through this year and into next.

State Rep. John McGinnis, R-Altoona, said he likes the option of permitting inflationary increases, something Blair County leaders included in a list of recommendations they favor.

“Otherwise fees don’t seem to change, which is what we have now,” McGinnis said.

When lawmakers came up with a funding stream in 1990 to financially support 911 centers, they set a monthly fee of $1.25 for each wired telephone. In 2003, they created a $1 monthly charge on any cellular or Internet device capable of making 911 calls.

Those fees haven’t changed since they were adopted, state Rep. Jerry Stern, R-Martinsburg, said.

And revenue wasn’t captured over large periods of time as technology evolved and communication options changed, Eichelberger said.

While cellphones have become commonplace and the amount seemed to have grown substantially, county leaders said that change is not making a difference in the bottom line.

Their current fees are not generating enough revenue to cover county costs, Commissioner Terry Tomassetti said.

Taylor said Blair County employs six administrators and 33 dispatchers to staff the 911 Center, which dispatches 19 police departments, 23 fire departments and five ambulance groups and monitors the locations of sheriff deputies, child welfare staffers and adult parole and probation officers while they’re on the job.

After becoming 911 Center director in January 2011, Taylor said he pursued several initiatives that had been discussed, including an upgrade to a digital communication system and the building of new communication towers. Commissioners financed that $7 million project with a bond issue.

Meanwhile, revenue from wired and wireless fees were used toward the purchase of $415,000 in communication equipment. An additional $700,000, Taylor said, from the wired and wireless fees will be used to pay the cost of a new telephone system this year.

The current telephone system is about eight years old, but it’s becoming less and less able to keep up with the changes in technology, Taylor said.

While the current system, with the flip of a switch, is capable of accepting text messages, Taylor said other measures aren’t in place to handle those messages or the amount of multiple messages resulting from an emergency such as a highway accident.

“We’ve got a lot of work to do, and we’ve got our work cut out for us,” Taylor said. “The biggest thing now is that we need to get this legislation renewed.”

Mirror Staff Writer Kay Stephens is at 946-7456.