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911 OKs considering legislation to increase revenues

The Warren County E-911 Commission Thursday approved the city’s and county’s looking into legislation to increase revenues for the dispatch center, but county officials say they are still concerned about raising phone surcharges.

After a tense meeting last week that ended in a delay so more information could be gathered, commission members voted unanimously Thursday for Vicksburg Mayor Laurence Leyens’ plan to seek legislative authorization to increase the cap on the phone surcharges to offset the subsidy now funded by both local governments.

“Our plan is a three-year phase-in to fully fund 911 by the surcharge,” Leyens said.

But, Warren County District 4 Supervisor Bill Lauderdale, who represents the board of supervisors on the commission and seconded the motion by Police Chief Tommy Moffett, said he is still concerned about increasing the amount paid monthly by phone customers.

“We’re still going to have people who are paying hundreds more and not getting any more services, and that’s not right,” Lauderdale said.

Elected officials in the city and county have said they have looked at lowering property tax millage rates to offset the surcharge increases. Lauderdale said that even with that, people with multiple phone lines could end up paying more in the increased surcharge than the amount they save on taxes.

The surcharge is currently capped by the Legislature at $1 per month for residential lines and $2 for businesses. The city’s proposal is to raise those caps to $2.50 and $5 respectively and phase the increase in over three years, but one problem could be the increased use of cell phones.

According to statistics provided by 911, the number of land-line residential phones in Warren County dropped from 19,075 at the beginning of 2002 to 17,043 in December, a difference of 2,032. The drop resulted in an almost $4,000 decrease in revenue.

The reason could be the rise of cell phones replacing home phones. Cell phones are also assessed a monthly $1 charge for 911, but that amount is federally regulated and cannot be changed by the state.

Although cell phone use is on the rise, the 911 revenue generated from them is about half that generated from land-line phones. If that trend continues, commission members say that even with a surcharge increase there might not be enough money to fund 911.

“That’s an even more compelling reason to adjust this, because we’re going in the wrong direction,” Leyens said.

The city board has already passed a resolution asking the Legislature to raise the caps, but it is not likely that Warren County delegates will introduce a bill without a similar resolution from supervisors.

Although Lauderdale supported the motion before the 911 Commission, he said that does not mean he will support requesting an increase from the state.

“We just got the number so we haven’t had a chance to look at it,” Lauderdale said.

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

“Our position is we will just stay at the unfair, negotiated split for the next two years because at least we’re working towards an end,” Leyens said.

After the meeting, Leyens said he considered the outcome to be a victory for city taxpayers because commission members had approved seeking the increase, but Lauderdale said that wasn’t the outcome.

“The motion was to look into it,” Lauderdale said. “That was the reason I voted for it.”