Supervisors lament E-911 funding problem

Clay County E-911 Director Treva Hodge discusses funding with supervisors
Staff Writer

The Legislature once again may talk about a decade-old funding problem that has plagued one of the most essential emergency services provided by counties. But at least one state senator doesn't see state lawmakers providing any relief.

A generation ago, the state set up a funding system for local E-911 services that relied on fees for landbased telephone lines and cell phones. The system worked well as long as everyone had a land line.

But those are a dying breed, replaced largely by cell phones. The problem is the monthly fee consumers pay for cell phones is $1, half the $2 fee for a land line. And part of that cell phone fee is set aside in a fund to be tapped by cell phone companies to erect towers and expand services.

As cell phones have exploded, many local E-911 agencies have had to rely increasingly on supplemental funding from local governments to pay dispatchers, keep equipment updated and provide other services.

The Clay County Board of Supervisors allocated $200,000 in the current budget for E-911. Thursday, supervisors approved transferring $150,000 now to meet current needs.

The state fees generate about half the Clay County E-911's $430,000 annual budget, Clay County E-911 Coordinator Treva Hodge said.

The transfer prompted a long exchange about the problem, its roots, and whether relief might be on the way.

"I don't think it's close to getting resolved," state Sen. Angela Turner-Ford said when asked by supervisors if she sees any movement. Hodge attended a Senate committee meeting two months ago where the fee was the center of discussion.

"We have a lot of counties that don't have enough money and it has been getting worse for years," Hodge told supervisors. Lowndes, Oktibbeha and most other counties in Northeast Mississippi supplement E-911 funding.

"There's one senator who says it's not as bad as counties are making it out to be," she added. "The counties are getting sold out. We are the ones who are having to fund the shortfalls. We are having to raise taxes to pay for what is one of the most essential services we provide. And the Legislature won't bite the bullet and add a little to the fee or release any of the money being held for the cell phone providers," added Supervisor Shelton Deanes.

"They aren't clueless about the problem," Hodge continued about state lawmakers. "Are they listening? I don't know."

To illustrate the value of E-911 services, Supervisor Luke Lummus noted county dispatchers handled 2,569 calls in December and 27,606 for the year. And more than half of those were for the West Point Police and Fire departments, which use their own dispatchers part of the time. The other major user, the Sheriff's Department, was responsible for more than 8,100 calls last year.

"You can say what you want to, but these folks do a heck of a job. Some people may complain but wait until they need 911. They won't be complaining then," he said.

Hodge also said AT&T, which handles the overall 911 service for the state, is working on a problem that occurs in Clay and some other counties where 911 calls are routed to Marshall County as the "default" response for a call when the system can't determine where the call originated.

"It is a problem in the AT&T system and it happens occasionally. If you know of a case, we need the address and phone number and AT&T will work on it," she explained.

As for cell phone calls to 911 that end up to neighboring counties, that's an issue that is going to continue until the "technology advances," she said.

Calls along county borders may be made in Clay County but be relayed off a tower in Lowndes County so the call is routed to Lowndes County or vice versa.

"We get calls on Highway 82 a lot," Hodge said. "Up along the border, our calls go to Monroe County sometimes and we get theirs. It happens all over the state. It's based on the tower where the call goes through."

In other business, supervisors:

-- Authorized paying half the $3,300 fee for Code Red emergency alert service. West Point pays the other half. The service, which is coordinated through Golden Triangle Planning and Development District, allows residents to sign up for emergency texts, e-mails or other notifications in case of severe weather or other emergencies. In addition to weather alerts, the county's 911 system and emergency management can send out alerts for everything from boil water notices to missing persons or chemical spills in as large or as small an area as necessary.