News & Features

Kalispell Lawmakers Raise New Concerns About 911 Center Funding

Meeting included a public hearing for the 911 Center’s latest fiscal year budget

Tensions continue to simmer around the Flathead 911 Emergency Communications Center as Kalispell officials maintain their scrutiny of its funding structure.

Last week, Kalispell city councilors restated their displeasure for the funding setup that fuels the consolidated emergency services dispatch facility. Issues were also brought up about “transparency” and the availability of public information being shared about meeting times and minutes from previous board meetings.

“Trying to find information about this meeting tonight was extremely difficult,” Kalispell City Councilor Phil Guiffrida said at the board’s monthly meeting on June 14.

The meeting included a public hearing for the 911 Center’s latest fiscal year budget, which will receive an overall 3.2 percent decrease.

The meeting was sparsely attended with mostly Kalispell city councilors in attendance, including Guiffrida, Tim Kluesner, Rod Kuntz, Chad Graham and Kalispell City Manager Doug Russell.

Guiffrida echoed previous statements asking that the board meetings be held during the evening, like last week’s, instead of at their usual time at 1 p.m., when many residents are working.

But central to Guiffrida and other councilors’ concerns were the funding issues that have plagued the center since its inception in 2009.

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.

A taxpayer in Kalispell currently contributes to the city’s portion of funding for 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 make two payments for the center. Yet residents outside these municipalities, in towns like Bigfork, Evergreen and Lakeside, only contribute to the county’s portion of funding.

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

The issue boiled over earlier this year when the Kalispell city council denied a requested update to the interlocal agreement between the cities and counties for the 911 center.

“In my opinion, I’d like to see this interlocal agreement dissolved and this go under county control,” Guiffrida said. “The only way we can do that is to find a funding mechanism that is a county funding mechanism. Having all the different entities involved creates major issues.”

Kluesner suggested the 911 Center operate similar to the county landfill, which charges residents across the board with a flat fee.

Guiffrida suggested the city could back out of the interlocal agreement completed in the near future and essentially remove itself from the 911 Center operations and operate separately.

Katie Williams, a Whitefish city councilor who represents the governing body on the 911 Center administrative board, said she agreed that the current funding structure is flawed but she hoped the different municipalities could work together to find an equitable solution.

“We want to find alternative mechanisms. We need full partnership buy-in,” she said, referencing Kalispell’s decision to deny the updated interlocal agreement.

“Our hands are tied until we can get Kalispell to the table. We are willing to work together.”

Susan Nicosia, Columbia Falls city manager and representative on the 911 Center administrative board, echoed Williams’ sentiments.

“I believe all four entities want the same thing and we want to move forward in a very positive manner,” she said.

Kalispell Mayor Mark Johnson, the city’s representative on the 911 Center board, said Kalispell is still operating under the original interlocal agreement and the city is willing to work with the other entities but is increasingly frustrated with the lack of a firm timeline for finding a solution.

A countywide ballot measure to create the new funding district for the 911 center failed by 10 votes in November 2014.

Correction (June 20): The story originally incorrectly stated that the 911 center’s latest fiscal year budget was approved for a 3.2 percent increase. The budget was approved for a 3.2 percent decrease.