911 Center Funding Could Go on November Ballot

The Flathead Emergency Communications Center, also called the 911 center, may be on its way to establishing a long-term funding source for the first time

By Molly Priddy

The Flathead Emergency Communications Center, also called the 911 center, may be on its way to establishing a long-term funding source for the first time since its inception in 2009.

Long-term funding has always been a question for the center, which was created with a $6.9 million bond approved by county voters five years ago. Since then, funding has been a hodge-podge of contributions from the three municipalities and Flathead County.

But now, with a more stable economy and consistency in the center’s administration, the 911 administrative board believes this year is the best time in five years to float a new funding mechanism – a special communications district with a new residential and commercial tax – to county taxpayers.

According to Susan Nicosia, the Columbia Falls city manager and member of the 911 administrative board’s future funding committee, the board is looking to ask taxpayers to fund a special purpose district for the 911 center.

Instead of all the cities putting in individual payments, this special purpose district would charge per residence and commercial tax bills.
Residence tax bills would be charged $25 per year, Nicosia said, and commercial entities would be charged in $50 units, with a maximum of 30 units.

As it stands now, the 911 center is funded through county and city contributions. The county contributes 6 mills, or about $1.5 million, toward the center, and each city contributes based on population.

For example, Columbia Falls puts $108,000 toward the 911 center each year from its general fund, Nicosia said.

If the special purpose district is passed, that money could go toward a different city project, or not be levied at all. That would be up to the discretion of the city council.

The special purpose district would also fall under county direction, and the county commissioners would be the district board. Funding would go through the county budgetary process, instead of the process the 911 center uses now as a standalone special purpose entity.

“It would greatly simplify the administration and responsibility for the center,” Nicosia said.

Center employees would also become county employees; currently, they are considered 911 center employees who are subject to county employee procedures.

Current funding for the 911 center places its budget for fiscal year 2014 at $2.8 million, but none of that money includes capital improvements or communications costs.

Funding for fiscal year 2015 is estimated at just under $3 million, and the future funding committee believes that it would cost about $3.9 million annually to set aside sufficient funding for capital improvements.

The center has about $40,000 set aside for such improvements this year.

Per the new funding mechanism, Flathead County would continue to levy the existing 6 mills at $1.5 million, and the Flathead special communications district would pull in an additional $1.9 million. Another $500,000 to $600,000 would still come in from the tax on phone bills.

The cities have protested the current funding mechanism, saying that it taxes city resident doubly; this special district makes it equal across the board, Nicosia said.

The 911 administrative board said it has taken about five years to work the kinks out of the system, but everything is moving smoothly now.
At their June 11 meeting, they discussed how well the response to the June 10 explosion at the Plum Creek MDF plant in Columbia Falls went.

“Things worked perfect,” Whitefish Police Chief Bill Dial said. “I mean, they were perfect.”

“No one area was left unprotected and yet we had the perfect response, equipment and man-wise,” Nicosia said.

Nicosia said administrative turnover at the 911 center and the loss of county Commissioner Jim Dupont coupled with the recent economic recession kept the board from pursuing such a ballot proposal, but the wrinkles seem to have been ironed out at the center.

A long-term funding mechanism “always was the intent; this is phase two to bring it all together,” she said. “We finished the building, consolidated the center, and everything is working well now.”

The 911 administrative board must have the language for the ballot proposal ready by August to have it voted on in the November general election.

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