Cities Urge County to Create New Funding Structure for 911 Center

City councils in Kalispell, Whitefish and Columbia Falls support creating funding setup for emergency services center

By Dillon Tabish

A taxpayer in Kalispell contributes to the city’s portion of funding for the Flathead Emergency Communications Center, also known as the 911 center. That same resident also dishes out taxes to the county for its part of the bill.

The situation is similar in both Whitefish and Columbia Falls, where taxpayers essentially fork out two payments for the center. Yet residents outside these municipalities, in towns like Bigfork and Lakeside, only contribute to the county’s portion.

The complicated, and some say unbalanced, funding structure is at the heart of a long-standing debate over how to pay for the 911 center.

Last week city councils in Kalispell, Whitefish and Columbia Falls voted to request that the county create a new special-funding district that would reshape the current funding structure, alleviating the “double taxation” that some city councilors continue to criticize and creating a better long-term funding mechanism, according to city officials. The votes were unanimous in both Whitefish and Columbia Falls and 8-1 in Kalispell, with one councilor citing the results of the last election, which addressed this very issue.

Councilor Chad Graham said he was grappling with the issue, agreeing that the current funding setup needs fixing but feeling uncomfortable with local government sidestepping voters to create this special district.

A countywide ballot measure to create the new funding district for the 911 center failed by 10 votes last November, with 15,217 votes against the referendum and 15,207 for it.

“There is a huge advantage for city taxpayers and residents with this district. Mainly it stops the double taxation for Kalispell residents and taxpayers. However I have a huge sticking point right now. I’m really hung up that this thing failed as a vote,” Graham said, adding, “By going for this, I feel like I’m not listening to those 10 votes.”

Others contended that the public did not clearly understand the situation and what was in their best interest.

“I seriously believe that the issue failed because of a lack of knowledge on the part of the constituency,” Kalispell City Councilor Jim Atkinson said, adding, “We know that our citizens will benefit from this.”

Established in 2009 as a consolidated emergency services dispatch facility, the 911 center serves the various communities of Flathead County, from Olney to West Glacier and south to Polson. With its unified setup, the center helps public safety agencies, such as city and rural fire departments and law enforcement, better respond in a spread-out region with various needs. The center fields over 113,000 calls per year.

Yet from the beginning, city and county officials have been unable to agree on how to properly fund the center.

Kalispell, Whitefish and Columbia Falls initially signed an interlocal agreement establishing the center’s funding structure. The bulk of funding comes from property taxes collected by Flathead County and the three cities. Each municipality’s contribution is based on population size.

In the latest fiscal year, Kalispell will have contributed $498,000 to the center with all but roughly $32,000 coming from its general fund. The City of Whitefish contributed $151,858 and the City of Columbia Falls contributed $113,369. The county contributes roughly $1.5 million.

Roughly 16 percent of the center’s funding comes from telephone surcharges, which are nationwide fees that residences and businesses pay for emergency services.

The fiscal year 2014 budget for the center was $2.8 million, but that did not include money for capital improvements or communications costs, which have piled up in recent years, according to administrators. The center’s Future Funding Committee, which features city and county officials from the valley, has said that the fiscal year 2015 budget would reach about $3.9 million annually to address capital improvement needs.

The new special-funding district, which county commissioners drew up last summer and the current city governments are pushing for, would throw out the separate contributions and create one fee structure for the entire Flathead County.

Residential units would pay $25 and commercial units would pay $50 with a maximum of 30 commercial units being charged. In other words, larger businesses would be charged more than smaller ones, but all residences throughout the county would pay the same flat fee on an annual basis.

The county would continue to levy six mills and pay $1.5 million annually. The telephone surcharges would cover the remaining costs.

In order to keep from taxing residents twice, the cities would reduce taxes by an equal amount.

“This would make it a county department rather than have entities in all three municipalities contribute, and it would create efficiencies,” Kalispell City Manager Doug Russell said.

The Flathead County Commissioners will review the matter at a future meeting.

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