Cell phones hurt 911 Comm. Center revenues

By Thomas Wilson
STAR STAFF
twilson@starhq.com

   As Americans cell out with wireless telephone providers, the number of traditional land-line telephones is declining.
   And like a cell phone ring blaring the William Tell Overture during a relative's funeral, the wireless revolution is causing disdain from members of the Elizabethton-Carter County Emergency Communications District.
   Rising cell phone use compared to land-line fees charged for 911 telephone service have Carter County ECD officials seeking new revenue either through restoring reduced local funding or possibly increasing surcharges to residential and business customers through their telephone provider.
   "We've got to deal with the fact that our land-line revenues are going to continue to drop," said John Pierce, chairman of the 911 District's board of directors during the board's bimonthly meeting on Tuesday. "We lose 40 cents per line."
   Currently, the Carter County ECD receives monthly surcharges of 65 cents for residential telephone lines and $2 for each business telephone passed on to county telephone customers. The growing popularity of cellular phones has resulted in decreased land-line telephone use and a reduction in residential line fees.
   The board passed the district's $548,000 budget in August. City and county governments cut five percent from their annual appropriations to the district for the 2004 fiscal year. The amount of $85,000 was reduced by roughly $4,700 from each government. The district also reported losing $300 in revenues to lost land-line telephones in January. The ECD charter requires the city and county to fund dispatchers' salaries.
   "The cost of operation keeps going up and we can't keep going like this," said board member Roger Deal.
   The Washington County 911 Service Board raised residential surcharge rates from 65 cents to $1.10 and business rates from $2 to $2.45 in January 2003. Carter County ECD officials estimated during a February 2003 board meeting that a similar rate increase could generate approximately $33,000 in new revenue per month.
   To initiate a surcharge rate increase, the board of directors of an emergency communications district must vote to propose a rate increase request by supplying optional rates, the desired effective date, the amount of additional revenue expected, and justification for the rate increase. The district must send a letter to the county or city mayor notifying them of the ECD's intent to petition the TECB for a rate increase. The ECD must also hold a public hearing on its rate increase request.
   County Mayor Dale Fair felt the time for talking about the district's revenue troubles was over and that action needs to be taken. He suggested the board make preparations to keep the ECD financially sound.
   "We need to put something on the table," Fair told board members.
   If an ECD falls below its budget for three years, the district becomes identified as a "financially distressed" district. If an ECD receives that designation, the state of Tennessee has the power to assume control of the district for at least two years.
   "We are nowhere near that," Pierce said. "We want to head off anything we have with that."
   Tennessee Emergency Communications Board also collects surcharges on cellular telephone calls made in each 911 district. The state keeps 75 percent of those charges and returns 25 percent, or one quarter on each dollar, to the districts. The Carter County ECD collects roughly $11,000 every two months, according to its most recent budget estimate. Pierce said the Tennessee Emergency Numbers Administration had recommended the district raise its surcharge rates to create a cushion for potential financial trouble.
   The board voted to send Pierce to the Budget Committee of the Carter County Commission on Monday night to request their funding be restored for the current fiscal year. The board also voted to establish a committee among its members to study how much revenue would be created if the board decided to request an increase in surcharges - a scenario Pierce said was not likely to happen given the failure of the county-wide sales tax referendum last week.
   "We do not want to do that," he said. "It would not be an advantage for us to go to the people and ask for money."