Supervisors doubt 911 surcharge issue will come up Monday

Published 12:00 am Monday, March 31, 2003

[03/30/03] A city-backed proposal that could lead to a shift toward higher surcharges for funding the E-911 dispatch center is unlikely to make supervisors’ Monday agenda, members of the county board said.

“We were presented with a proposal,” Board of Supervisors president Richard George said Friday. “We took the proposal and said we would consider it. Apparently, it wasn’t attractive enough to any board member that I’ve heard from. We have not pursued it any further.”

The plan, which is subject to approval by the state Legislature, would allow for the phasing-in over four years of a 250 percent increase in the surcharges currently paid by residential and business telephone customers.

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Per-line surcharges are currently $12 a year for homes and $24 for businesses. The plan would allow them to eventually be raised to $30 and $60 respectively, with each year’s raise limited to one-third of the previous year’s charge.

Annual surcharges on cell-phones, also currently $12, are regulated at the federal level and would not be affected.

The deadline for local legislators to introduce the type of “local and private” legislation needed to approve the plan is the end of the current legislative session, scheduled for Sunday. The Board of Supervisors’ last scheduled meeting before then is Monday.

The three-member Vicksburg Board of Mayor and Aldermen has passed a resolution requesting the legislation. Before introducing such a bill that would affect both city and county governments, local legislators have said they would require the approval of both.

Vicksburg Mayor Laurence Leyens said that if the county board does not put to a vote a similar resolution before the end of this week, it will be going back on promises three of its members made in an informal city-county meeting in February.

A city-made videotape of that meeting shows that District 4 Supervisor Bill Lauderdale said he did not think taxpayers should pay more for the same service, but “if we need to go ahead, though, and ask the Legislature for the authority to do it, I certainly don’t have a problem with doing that.”

The tape also shows Leyens and District 2 Supervisor Michael Mayfield discussing the proposal.

Mayfield: “The thing right now is, Do we ask for the authority?’ and if we get past that, we can move on?”

Leyens: “So the question is, will y’all take this up in your next board meeting to try to adopt a resolution to join this…?

Mayfield: “I will, (but) I’m only one vote.”

To Leyens’ question, District 1 Supervisor David McDonald also replied, “I don’t have a problem with that.”

Disagreement over the method of funding the E-911 budget shortfall dates to shortly after Leyens’ election 21 months ago. This year, the part of the 911 budget not funded by surcharges is $381,000, of a total budget of $840,000. The shortfall is being funded by a negotiated split, 70 percent of which comes from the city’s general fund and 30 percent, from the county’s.

The negotiated split has its roots in the days before the two governments agreed to consolidate the service. Then, the city and county “contributed” their respective dispatchers, housing them together but paying them separately.

A special funding committee studied the issue in 2002. In its report, Paul Ingram, Rusty Hawkins and Bryan Brabston wrote that “in round numbers the current 70/30 allocation results in total E-911 budget revenue that mirrors the respective city/county agency use of the services of E-911.”

Leyens argues, though, that when the dispatchers became employees of the E-911 commission, funding the center became a responsibility of the county government. He says city taxpayers, who also pay county taxes, have been shouldering an unfair burden in subsidizing the shortfall.

The proposal, the mayor says, would create the option of returning full funding of the center to its originally intended source of surcharges, and that the current surcharge caps are outdated. To offset any surcharge increases, each government could simply reduce its tax rate, he said.

“It sounds good, but with all of the items affected by a millage rate, taxpayers would never realize any reduction in the cost of taxes,” George said.

Attempting to fund the entire shortfall using only surcharge revenue also involves risk, Lauderdale said, citing uncertainty over how the pace of the shift toward cell-phone usage might change during the time any cap raises might be phased in.

“We’re trying to establish an adequate and secure funding mechanism other than taxes,” Lauderdale said. “The numbers (city officials) gave us, when you ran them out, you couldn’t fund it. We’ve got to be able to know that we’ve got control.”

All five supervisors are candidates for re-election in fall elections. No city elections are set for this year.

“It’s a five-member board,” George said. “If one of the members wants to bring (the proposal) up and discuss it, that’s fine.”