County refuses increase in surcharges for 911

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, April 1, 2003

[04/01/03]Supervisors rejected a city plan to increase telephone surcharges for 911 service in Warren County on Monday amid criticism of the city administration’s way of handling the request.

District 2 Supervisor Michael Mayfield said his constituents are against any plan that would raise the monthly charges added to business and residential phone bills since 1989.

“I don’t have a problem asking the Legislature for the authority, but I’m not going to sit here any day of the week and allow the mayor of Vicksburg to tell me how to run this office,” Mayfield said.

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Mayor Laurence Leyens had proposed seeking legislative permission to raise the monthly charges to $2.50 for residential lines and $5 for businesses. Because the county board does not meet again before the end of the legislative session, supervisors effectively ended any chance of an increase this year.

Today the cost is $1 for each residential line and $2 for each business line.

The plan was a three-year phase-in to fully fund the 911 Dispatch Center budget with the surcharge and do away with supplements from both local governments. During an informal joint meeting between the two governing boards in February, supervisors had indicated to city officials that they would consider the plan before the end of the legislative session, but had taken no action until Monday when District 3 Supervisor Charles Selmon made a motion to endorse the city’s proposal.

“Are we willing to entertain a motion to look at other funding options for 911?” Selmon asked.

His motion died when none of the other four supervisors would second.

“A land line rate increase will put people in the county outside the municipality funding centralized dispatch for police and fire services they do not have access to,” said Richard George, president of the board of supervisors.

George also said increasing the surcharge would shift the cost of 911 services from property owners to telephone users which would be unfair to businesses with multiple phone lines.

“Hashing this over and over isn’t doing anyone any good. I’m done with it,” George said.

District 4 Supervisor Bill Lauderdale said he would not support the city proposal because he said the numbers don’t add up. Lauderdale said that because cell phones are being used more and replacing some home land line phones, proposed surcharges will not be enough to fully fund 911.

“Instead of bickering about what we’ve been doing, we should look to the future and how we can continue funding 911,” he said.

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.

Most of the dispatch center overhead goes to BellSouth for database access, and to salaries, training and equipment.

Taking in account that city taxpayers also pay county taxes, the existing supplement split makes the cost of 911 service inside municipal limits $13.51 per person and $1.86 per person outside the city.

City and county officials have differed over that split since the year before Leyens took office, following up on former Mayor Robert Walker’s similar insistence that city taxpayers were carrying too much of the burden of 911.

“The county does tax everybody, but not everybody gets the same services from the Warren County Board of Supervisors,” Selmon said. “We can’t continue to fight with the city because we’ve taken a stand, and we don’t want to move.”

After watching the county meeting on cable TV, Leyens said he was disappointed with the county’s lack of action and said that city funding for 911 could be a problem this October when the new budget year begins.

“We’ve been trying to resolve this problem for two years now and they basically want to put their heads in the sand,” Leyens said.

He referred to comments made by supervisors as “political spin and double talk,” and said they were trying to distract residents from the fact that 911 is a countywide service mandated by the state. He stressed that the city has no authority to change 911 services or dismantle the dispatch center as suggested by some supervisors.

“I support the county board of supervisors for putting together a first class 911 center, but there has not been any rational for the city taxpayers to subsidize a county function,” Leyens said. “It’s clear that the supervisors don’t want to take care of their responsibilities, and that’s what we have elections for.”

The local and private legislation requested by the city would have given the county the authority to raise the surcharges, but it still would have required action by the board of supervisors, and all five posts are up for re-election this November.