Locals pay more for 911 services than those in other areas|[7/28/05]

Published 12:00 am Thursday, July 28, 2005

Vicksburg and Warren County residents pay substantially more for E-911 Dispatch Center operations than comparable communities per capita and would pay even more under the spending plan being discused for the coming year.

One reason is that the center here is more advanced, said L.W. “Bump” Callaway, an E-911 commissioner and director of the Warren County Office of Emergency Management.

“We kind of broke ground statewide, and, really, in the whole Southern region,” Callaway said. “We were the only one doing it and making it work.”

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Still, Warren County’s per-capita expense, $16.49 for this budget year, is $3.89 per person higher than the next most expensive operation, Lauderdale County, where the cost per resident is $12.60. Lowndes and Oktibbeha were lower still, both about $1.08 each according to numbers provided by directors in those counties.

Combined dispatch centers using caller-identification technology became possible about 15 years ago. Warren County voters approved creation of the new agency in 1989 and operations began in the early 1990s. Fees on phone bills plus supplements from city and county governments fund the specialized centers.

Warren County is also moving ahead with technology to pinpoint the location of calls made from cell phones where some other counties are not yet doing so. Today, dispatchers only receive the location of the tower relaying a cell call, and that might not be specific enough in a medical or other emergency.

Lauderdale, for example, has not yet integrated a mapping system into the computers its dispatchers use, said the director, John Mott. “We’re still waiting to get our (geographic-information-system) project off the ground,” he said.

This year’s total Warren County E-911 budget has been $818,668. For the fiscal year starting Oct. 1, the commission has under study a $2.1 million spending plan, but even with major capital expenses in that plan deducted, overall operational spending rises to about $1.2 million or $23.90 per person.

One reason for the jump is the planned addition of three new positions for communications officers, increasing the staff from 17 to 20.

The director of the Lowndes County center in Columbus, Jessie Colvin, said upgrading computer software and hardware is also being sought there. The expected cost of the new hardware is $570,000 and the software is to be obtained free of charge in a licensing partnership with Harrison County, Colvin said. Lowndes plans to use a lease-purchase plan to finance that purchase, Colvin added.

Like Warren County, some Lowndes equipment is outdated, Colvin said. “Some of it has been in place since 1989.” Lowndes County’s 2000 population, 61,589, was 11,942 more than Warren’s.

Though Oktibbeha County, with 42,902 residents in the 2000 census, has only 6,742 fewer people than Warren, its center operates with eight dispatchers, said its director, Jim Britt.

“We have done a good bit of upgrades in the last three to four years,” he said of his Starkville-based center. It has incorporated a digital-mapping system and uses “Phase II” information from cellular-telephone providers to pinpoint within about 50 to 300 meters the locations of callers using that technology, Britt added.

“We’ve been very fortunate here to be able to take advantage of grant opportunities,” he said, and that has eased the local tax hit. “Our 911 comes almost entirely from” taxes that appear on customers’ phone bills, he said.

Of those surveyed, most similar in size to Vicksburg’s center may be Lauderdale County’s. Mott said the Meridian center employs 18 dispatchers and three office personnel. The county has 78,161 residents and, like Vicksburg, has interstate-highway traffic. Interstates 20 and 59 pass through Lauderdale County.

Mott said the budget number he provided was an average from 2000 through the current fiscal year and that it has included all major equipment purchases and that the county has also used lease-purchase plans for financing.

“Even with the surcharges it’s not going to be self-funding,” Mott said.

Another factor that might skew comparisons is that the center here has built up a $550,000 budget reserve. Under the proposed budget, much of that would be applied to capital expenses, lessening the impact on city and county budgets.