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911 Commission won’t raise fees without more information

Warren County E-911 Commission members say they want more information before making a recommendation to the county board to seek an increase in surcharges phone customers pay.

During a tense meeting Wednesday, the seven-member panel voted 6-1 to seek information about the number of phones in the county and how much revenue an increase could generate. The members also agreed to meet again next week.

“If this will work then maybe we’ll be beyond all this bickering,” said Kelly Worthy, chairman of the 911 commission. “I just don’t want to come back a year from now and say we made a mistake.”

Funding for the joint city-county 911 dispatch center comes from the surcharges on all phones, incuding cell phones, in the county plus subsidies from the two local governments.

Those surcharges are capped by the Legislature, and Vicksburg’s mayor and aldermen have proposed seeking an increase to cover all 911 costs and eliminate the subsidies.

Mayor Laurence Leyens, who represents the city on the 911 commission, voted against waiting. “We can put our heads in the sand and not have the authority or we can take advantage of this legislative window,” Leyens said. “We’re going to be back in a big war next year over funding.”

The proposal by the city would ask for the increase during the current legislative session which ends in two months.

Proposed is increasing the cap on the monthly charge from $1 to $2.50 for residential lines and from $2 to $5 for businesses. Maximums have been charged since voters agreed to pay for the advanced emergency dispatching center in 1988.

Although supervisors have not said if they will support increasing the surcharge, District 4 Supervisor Bill Lauderdale, who represents the county board on the 911 commission, said the increase would amount to asking taxpayers for more money without giving some form of tax break to offset the additional costs.

“Those of us who have been working in government for a long time know how this got set up, and to me it is a big deal to raise the surcharge,” Lauderdale said.

This year’s budget for 911 is about $840,000. The phone bill surcharges raise $459,000; city taxpayers will add another $267,000 through their city taxes; and city and county taxpayers will add another $114,000 through their county taxes.

The money pays for staff, equipment costs and maintenance contracts, and phone company charges for access to its database of customer addresses.

The last increase to the surcharges was in 2001 when fees went up 20 cents for residences and 34 cents per line for businesses. Cell phone users are also charged $1 a month to help fund emergency services.

Leyens has said for the past two years that the subsidy formula is unfair to city residents who pay both city and county taxes. He also said he will vote to reduce city taxes by the amount necessary to offset any increase in phone surcharges to city taxpayers.

“Right now it’s just a shell game because most people don’t understand that it also comes out of their property taxes,” Leyens said.

“The negotiations or cat fights, whatever you want to call them, are front-page news every year. If the public doesn’t understand they’re just not paying attention,” said L.W. “Bump” Callaway, head of Warren County Emergency Management.

Commission members said they will look at the number of residential, business and cell phones and how much each generates each year before recommending to the county board that they seek the authority from the Legislature to raise fees for 911.

One concern raised by the commission members is the growing use of cell phones which some people use instead of having a home phone. Because cell phones are federally regulated, the state cannot increase the surcharges on them which is less than on regular phones and generates less funding for 911.

“My confusion about the numbers is that regardless of what they are the money still is not coming in to cover the costs,” said Vicksburg Police Chief Tommy Moffett.

The 911 commission will meet again at 9 a.m. Feb. 6 at the Warren County Board of Supervisors’ office to discuss the recommendation.