In a press conference held Monday at the State Capitol rotunda, members of the Arkansas County Judges’ Association joined by members of the state legislature announced plans for the introduction of “The Arkansas Public Safety Act of 2019.” The act’s intended purpose is to re-structure the state’s 911 system, notably its funding.

Van Buren County was one of many Arkansas counties which wrestled with 911 funding shortfalls in its 2019 planning. The 911 system in Arkansas was originally intended to be self-funded through phone-line fees. Beginning in 2005 the Arkansas Department of Finance and Administration noted these fee amounts dropping off as landline service, with its $1.25 fee per line were replaced by cell phones at 65 cents per line. (Arkansas’ 65 cents per line is one of the lowest 911 fees in the country.) This led to at times contentious meetings as the county and its cities were asked to contribute to 911 operations, resolved as 2019 budget planning closed.

Arkansas Senator Jason Rapert, a sponsor of the proposed act, stated: “One of the fundamental obligations of state and local government is to provide for law enforcement and emergency services. Across Arkansas, 911 service suffers from either a lack of funds, inefficient organization, outdated equipment and technology, or all of the above. In many areas of our state, law enforcement and first responders are unable to communicate with each other easily which is unacceptable. It is time for our state to upgrade our 911 systems and enhance public safety for Arkansas citizens. I am happy to support legislation which has the support of the Arkansas County Judges Association and many others. I will be working to get the Arkansas Public Safety Act passed into law so that Arkansas citizens have a 911 system that functions better for all concerned.” 

The changes in funding are proposed not only to meeting funding shortfalls, such as experienced in Van Buren County, but to properly fund 911 operations to take advantage of emerging technologies.

The proposed removes the three existing funding sources for 911: Local 911 tariffs, the state universal service charge and the emergency telephone service charge.

Instead, per the statement released by the Arkansas County Judges’ Association, the act will establish “a uniform public safety connectivity charge of $2.25.” The charge will decrease landline charges an average of 32 cents and raise cell fees (as seen on the monthly bill) 47 cents.

The public safety connectivity fee is estimated to provide $38 million in new funding to support both the existing 911 network as well as provide increased broadband infrastructure, in turn supporting 911 next-generation 911. The funding will also support the Arkansas Wireless Information Network (AWIN) used by first-responders.

Broadband and attendant next-gen will move the 911 system from analog phone lines to internet protocol systems, in turn allowing data such as text, images, video and data to be transmitted across the 911 network.

An additional turn in the proposal is lowering the amount of 911 centers, called “Public Safety Answering Points” (PSAPS) in the state from 127 to 77. This is not expected to impact Van Buren County, which has the single PSAP located in Fairfield Bay.

County officials expressed cautious optimism in reviewing the proposed act.

County Judge Dales James said the act, still in its “shell” form having been filed by title only, has the promise of improved 911 funding, including funding for next-gen 911.

“Any assistance is better than zero,” James said.

County 911 head Judy Well struck a similar note, with some concern about the still-to-come details of the bill, including how the proposed $2.25 fee would be divided between counties.