911 faces new year with old woes   

By Thomas Wilson
star staff

  The Carter County Emergency Communications District faces a new fiscal year with old funding problems.
  The district's board of directors passed a continuation budget Tuesday afternoon with rising maintenance costs and ever-growing cellular telephone usage eating into surcharge revenues.
  "We are trying to pick up some money in the cell phones, but that's still not going to cover the loss of the surcharges," said Glenna Morton, assistant director of the 911 district.
  Currently, the district receives monthly surcharges of 65 cents for residential telephone lines and $2 for each business telephone line passed on to county telephone customers. However, the district has lost more than 4,000 landline customers in the past fiscal year; a phenomenon district officials attribute to the popularity of cell phones.
  The Tennessee Emergency Numbers Administration in Nashville has recommended the district raise its residential and business surcharge rates to raise additional revenue. Morton said the district did not want to initiate a surcharge rate increase.
  "We are the only county is this area not to put in a surcharge increase," board chairman John Pierce said during the meeting.
  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 also hold a public hearing on its rate increase request.
  Maintenance costs on the district's CAD and telecommunication equipment will jump from $1,800 last year to $8,100 this year. The district also faces the need of hiring a full-time employee designated as a quality control monitor for incoming 911 telephone calls and dispatching.
  The city of Elizabethton appropriated $85,000 to the district in its 2004-2005 fiscal year budget passed by City Council last week. The county government have typically matched annual appropriation amounts to the district.
  The Carter County Commission's Budget Committee approved a request Monday night from Pierce to provide an additional $19,250 to hire another dispatcher to field the increase in calls and for a raise for existing employees.
  Emergency communications districts are exempt from receiving state or federal grants to fund operations. The district acquired new mapping technology via a $50,000 grant administered through the county government.
  For many board members who are county and city government officials, the burden of state mandates was hardly news.
  "They are killing local governments," said board member and Elizabethton City Manager, Charles Stahl, of federal government service mandates.
  The Tennessee Emergency Communications Board (TECB) 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.
  Cell telephone appropriations are based on a county's population. The county 911 district receives roughly 23 cents on each dollar surcharge with the remaining portion going to the state.
  Morton said cell phone usage presented a bigger problem for 911 dispatchers - finding the source of an emergency call made from a cell telephone.
  "If you have dialed 911, your address is going to come up on our screen," she said of the landline telephones. "If you can dial 911 and can't say anything, we still know where it came from."
  A cell phone call must give a dispatcher precise information as to his or her location for the information to be relayed to public safety personnel - a challenging task while reporting an emergency that might involve a loved one, Morton said.
  The district will operate on a continuation budget when the new fiscal year begins July 1.
  In other business, the board voted 8-0 to renew a contract with Richard Sammons as the district's accountant for the next fiscal year. Morton budgeted $3,450 for the accounting services for the next fiscal year. Board members also voted to select accountant Margaret Moses to perform the district's audit.