Funding concerns are drawing into question the structure of the Van Buren County’s 911 Center for 2019, with Fairfield Bay making the initial steps of turning center responsibility over to the county should the funding issue not be resolved.
While funding for the center has been an ongoing issue, an announcement at the Tuesday, July 30, 911 Commision meeting that Clinton would not be making a contribution to funding the center led City of Fairfield Bay Mayor Paul Wellenberger to begin plans of possibly change to center responsibility away from Fairfield Bay.
Currently ten dispatchers work at the Fairfield Bay 911 Center. After the announcement at the Tuesday meeting — which was met at the time with surprise — Wellenberger told staff there that if a funding agreement was not reached by Sept. 1, center employees would need to start using their comp and vacation time pending their being removed from Fairfield Bay payroll Jan. 1, 2019.
“I’m not going to take it on the chin next year,” Wellenberger said in a later interview. “I don’t know what else to do; I thought it [funding share] was resolved,” adding that ending the dispatchers employment and having to compensate for comp time would be too great an expense for the city.
At the Tuesday meeting, City of Clinton City Council member Jeff Pistole told the commission that Clinton would not be able to pay its assigned $46,883 share of 911 funding.
Committee chair Justice Mary Philips, obviously surprised, said, “I thought this had been settled!” repeatedly to Pistole, that the city was willing to make a “fair share” contribution to 911 operations. Others present also expressed surprise to Pistole’s announcement.
Previous commision meetings had been better attended, including mayors and police chiefs. This particular meeting had a smaller turnout, with Pistole the only Clinton representative.
The commision was formed after a November 2017 inter-governmental meeting where representatives of the cities and county were told costs for jail and 911 operations were not being met by the existing structure, in turn placing unfair burdens on the sheriff’s department and Fairfield Bay, respectively. In meetings prior to the Tuesday meeting, members had worked out per-inmate funding for the county jail by adding a per-charge jail fee to each charge filed.
The apportionment of 911 fees had been an ongoing issue. Recent meetings had apportionment of 911 fees as a percent share between Clinton, Fairfield Bay, and the county, based on call volume, with 58 percent share to the county, 23 percent share to Fairfield Bay and 19 percent share to Clinton. The share figures were developed based on an analysis of call volume against population figures. Shirley and Damascus calls volumes were judged insignificant in developing what is being called the “Fair Share” formula.
Pistole told the group he had just gotten off the phone prior to the commision meeting with City of Clinton Mayor Richard McCormac who told him the city, facing its own budget pressures, would not be able to provide the $46,883.
Prior to the meeting Clinton’s fair share was estimated at $44,604. A recalculation at the meeting raised the figures across the board, based upon a review 911 Center operations expense.
The City of Clinton had just completed its mid-year budget review in the week prior to the commission meeting, which was relatively flat, showing no significant gains or losses in city revenue for 2018. The city’s 2018 budget was essentially its 2017 budget with some monies added for employee pay raises.
McCormac said later while he was not prepared to reject the 911 funding, noting that it was ultimately a city council decision, adding a $46,000 line item would ultimately lead to layoffs or cutbacks of other services in Clinton. He also expressed concern that the funding request did not resolve what say Clinton would have in 911 Center operations.
The 911 Center, located in Fairfield Bay, handles 911 duties for the county. From the time of its 2000 construction the center has been funded by funds set back from phone line service. The center has been part of Fairfield Bay’s budget since its opening. A funding issue has been growing due to the disparity between funding offset for landline phones compared to cell phone service. The phone fees at one time, when coupled with grants, provided for 911 operations. As the number of landlines in the county had diminished, losing roughly 1,600 lines since 2012, increasing pressure had been placed on Fairfield Bay to fund the 911 Center — which Wellenberger expressed at the intergovernmental meeting in 2017.
Based upon 2017 figures provided by the county, the 911 Center is $500,217 a year to operate. This is offset by $266,000 generated by phone line fees, maintenance reimbursement, funds mandated by Arkansas Act 442 and $12,000 by Fairfield Bay Police for its dispatch. (Renewed figures, generated at the Tuesday meeting, would change these totals slightly.)
The majority of that gap is covered by county funds, at $110,000 per year. The figures comes from landline reimbursement paid to the county, along with $60,000 - $80,000 from the county general fund. Currently 911 wireless reimbursement is paid directly to Fairfield Bay. The commission’s agreement, should it be enacted, would move all reimbursement funds into the county which would then pay Fairfield Bay.
County Judge Roger Hooper pointed out that this current situation of phone reimbursement fees no longer meeting 911 operation expense was something counties and cities throughout Arkansas were facing. Hooper said various initiatives were underway for this to be addressed at the next Arkansas legislative session.
Ultimately, Hooper said, 911 service was a must-have for the county, so it was a matter of the entities involved, Clinton, Fairfield Bay and the county, working out concerns toward a resolution. A meeting is currently planned both mayors and Hooper.
Justice Dale James said much the same after Tuesday’s commision meeting: “We just have to get together and work this out,” he said.