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Columbia Missourian

Columbia, Boone County seek sales tax for 911, emergency management

By Bailey Otto
February 18, 2013 | 6:00 a.m. CST

COLUMBIA — Sheriff Dwayne Carey is so passionate about getting Boone County voters to approve a three-eighths-cent sales tax for the 911 and emergency management systems he plans to campaign for the ballot measure as if it were a bid for re-election. 

There are fewer than six weeks remaining until the April 2 election, and March is going to be a big month, Carey said. He plans to go door to door, post yard signs and get the word out to residents any way he can about the impact the tax would have. 

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“It is the integral part of the public safety wheel,” Carey said of the joint communications and emergency management operations. “If it doesn’t start there, then you’re not going to have a firetruck come to your burning house, you’re not going to have an ambulance come to your medical emergency, you’re not going to have a cop show up for your domestic disturbance, because if we’re not getting the information, then we’re not responding.”

Here are some important facts about the tax proposal and the 911 and emergency management operations:

What is the proposal?

Proposition 1 asks voters to approve a three-eighths-cent countywide sales tax to pay for a new joint communications and dispatch center and emergency management services. 

Who will vote on it? 

All registered Boone County voters are eligible to cast ballots. 

How much money would it generate, and how would it be spent? 

It is estimated the tax will generate more than $9 million a year to overhaul the county's 911 and emergency management operations. This includes construction of a new facility, more personnel, updated equipment and continued upgrades and maintenance.

How are joint communications and emergency management funded now? 

As it stands, the city operates the service, and five of the 13 agencies that use it chip in to cover the cost. User agencies include the Columbia Police and Fire departments, the Boone County Sheriff's Department, hospital ambulance services and county fire districts.

The city pays about $1.7 million, and the county pays between $600,000 and $700,000 annually to fund the operations. This accounts for about 90 percent of their budgets. The formula fluctuates depending on the number of calls each user agency receives in one year.

How did we get here? 

The tax proposal is the result of months of talks among representatives of the city, the county and the agencies that rely on the system for their dispatching needs.

The 911 and emergency management system in place now was established in 1977, when the county's population was half the 165,000 it is today and when there were far fewer 911 calls, particularly from cellphones. 

City Manager Mike Matthes believes it's appropriate that joint communications and emergency management be moved from the city to the county's jurisdiction and funded through a countywide tax because it is a countywide service. That's a better model, he said, than having five specific users pay for the operations.

The Boone County Commission appointed a blue ribbon advisory committee that submitted a comprehensive report advising a general sales tax proposal to raise money.

The commissioners — Presiding Commissioner Dan Atwill, Southern District Commissioner Karen Miller and Northern District Commissioner Janet Thompson — voted unanimously to place the tax on the April ballot.

This sales tax will be 0.375 of a cent on every dollar spent. Atwill noted that anyone who spends money in Boone County would pay the tax.

Carey said the entire joint communications and emergency management operation will be funded through the sales tax and the agencies funding it now would cease contributing. Carey said the city plans to redirect a portion of the money it has paid into the systems to hire firefighters and police officers. Atwill said the county would use a portion of its annual contribution to pay for the administrative costs of joint communications and emergency management offices and personnel.

What are the needs? 

Since May, Carey has spent several months and long hours looking at every aspect of joint communications and emergency management. The sheriff spent time in the operations room, talked to staff and listened to call recordings.

Carey said there's a significant need for more dispatchers taking 911 calls. As many as 20 new employees would be necessary to adequately staff three shifts handling calls 24/7.

Problems stem from the rising number of 911 calls from cellphones. About 75 percent of calls to 911 are from cellphones.

A highway accident that a few decades ago would have generated only a few calls might result in a few hundred today, Matthes said. He fears a situation where the phone lines are slammed for one accident and someone in trouble won’t be able to get through. The average time someone waits after dialing 911 before reaching a dispatcher is 36 seconds, Matthes said.

There's also a need to relocate both the emergency operation center, which is in the Armory Sports Center, and the 911 operation, which is housed in the Columbia Police Department headquarters. Children who attend a day care at the recreation center would have to be moved to another location if a disaster were to occur so that emergency personnel could do their work, Carey said.

Equipment and computer software also need significant upgrades, according to the report from the blue-ribbon advisory panel.

Who would administer a new 911 and emergency management system, and how? 

Joint communications and emergency management would become a new department under Boone County government.

The Boone County Commission would hire a director and appoint a volunteer advisory board that would include fire, police and emergency service representatives, along with members of the public.

Matthes said he doesn't anticipate that the operations would suffer with a transition to the new department.

“Really, you have to take it on trust,” he said. “We’re not going to drop the baton as we hand it off.”

Will other taxes be rescinded if this one passes? 

The Southern Boone County Fire Protection District pays its portion of funding for emergency services with a property tax for communications that brings in about $32,000 annually.

Jim Saylor, a board member with the fire district, said he hopes it can repeal that tax if the new 911 sales tax is approved. He doesn’t want southern Boone residents to be double-taxed.

The question, he said, is whether more money will be needed later. “If somewhere down the line they’re going to ask for more money, that communication tax is our only means of doing that because we run on a very small budget in our area,” Saylor said.

The Boone County Fire Protection District also covers its portion of the 911 and emergency management budgets with a separate property tax. Fire Chief Scott Olsen said that the odds are favorable that the dispatch tax would be repealed, but that will depend on the governing structure of the new department. He said the dispatch tax generates $150,000 per year; $125,000 of that goes to joint communications.

Most of Boone County government's contribution to joint communications, which can go up to about $700,000 a year, comes from the county's general revenue budget. About $190,000 a year is generated by a dedicated tax on land line phones. Atwill said the tax would eventually phase out if the sales tax were approved.

What other options were considered? 

Another option presented during the agencies' discussions was called the 190 option, a reference to a chapter of the Missouri revised statutes that governs emergency services. This option would have created a separate political subdivision to fund joint communications — as opposed to moving the services under the county. An elected board would have been responsible for overseeing operations, creating a budget and hiring a director. Residents would have had to vote on a sales tax for funding. This option wouldn't have raised money for emergency management.

Atwill said the county has many services already in place, such as a legal department, a purchasing department, a facilities maintenance department, a finance department, and payroll and insurance personnel. Implementing the 190 plan would take longer because these services would have to be set up.

Also, a new political subdivision would have no borrowing history. Carey said it would be unable to borrow money to start improvements until it had established a history of sales tax revenue. 

“If we’re campaigning this and saying, ‘It’s an immediate need; we’ve got to get it addressed right now,’ under 190, we’d have to say, ‘Oh, but it’s going to take a year for us to do that,” Carey said. 

Olsen said the 190 approach was appealing because it would have created a separate, elected board. If officials had decided to go that route, he said, the Boone County Fire Protection District would have called for a separate sales tax to fund emergency management. 

The Southern Boone County Fire Department supported the 190 plan because it would have created its own political entity and focused on joint communications.

“We liked that option,” Saylor said. “No favoritism played to any one service that way, and it wouldn’t be controlled by anyone else.”

Saylor said that although the 190 option was nixed, the department is pleased the 911 issues are being addressed.

“Under the county, it sounds very promising that we’ll have a good system and that it will work down there for us,” he said. “We’re very hopeful with that."

Supervising editor is Scott Swafford.

Public Service Joint Communications 2012-13 budget

This 2012-13 budget for the Public Service Joint Communications agencies shows the amounts of money for operations and projects paid by each agency for joint communications and emergency management.

If you cannot see the embedded document, click here to view it on Document Cloud.