Flathead Emergency Communications Center Levy Will Be Back on the Ballot

Commissioners say local 911 center needs steady funding, better management

By Micah Drew
Flathead 911 Emergency Communications Center on April 22, 2020. Hunter D’Antuono | Flathead Beacon

Flathead County voters will decide Nov. 3 whether to create a new special-funding district that would provide long-term funding for the Flathead Emergency Communication Center (FECC).

The Flathead County commissioners at their July 21 meeting approved the resolution to add FECC funding to the ballot this fall.

“This has been an ongoing task I believe that we’ve been trying to get accomplished for many many years,” said County Commissioner Pamela Holmquist. “When the facility was started, it was always the intent to find a stable funding source.”

Currently the FECC, also known as the 911 center, is funded by both city and county taxes, which critics say means that taxpayers living in the three incorporated communities contribute twice.

Commissioner Philip Mitchell adamantly disagrees with that characterization. He said that since most of the calls come from within the cities, he believes it is funded correctly.

In the upcoming fiscal year, Kalispell will contribute $594,304 to the center. Whitefish will contribute $189,097 and Columbia Falls will contribute $135,069. Flathead County will contribute roughly $1.8 million.

The new special district would draw on funding from all county residents regardless of where they live, alleviating the double taxation on city residents.

The proposed $3.5 million levy will be through taxable valuations on property, and will increase property taxes on a home valued at $100,000 by approximately $17.68. This will provide $700,000 more than the current interlocal agreement for the fiscal year 2021.

The 911 center opened in 2010 to serve as the consolidated emergency services dispatch facility for the county. The center dispatches law enforcement, fire and medical agencies, and search and rescue teams throughout Flathead County, into Glacier National Park and down to Polson.

Coming up with a long-term plan to fund the center has been a central issue among the cities and the county for years.

In 2014 a similar levy was put on the ballot for county residents to consider. The measure was defeated by 10 votes on a recount.

Whitefish resident Turner Askew, a former member of the 911 board, commented on the need to fund the center properly.

“It may not seem important to you if you’re not the person having the heart attack,” said Askew. “This is a very sophisticated operation, it can work very well but some of the equipment is getting old and needs replacing.”

Gary Mahugh, fire chief for the Creston rural fire district, echoed those comments.

“We know that we can keep the wheels on and we’re continuing to answer the phone, but the equipment that we have at that center is starting to get quite aged,” he said. “I think it’s time we really put together the right plan, do the right promotion to fund our 911 center into the future.”

The commissioners also spoke about the need to turn management of the 911 center over to the county, rather than keeping it under the 911 board, which would shift into an advisory role. The creation of the special district would cede full control to the county.

“I think it’s been run poorly for a number of years,” said Mitchell. “I implore the cities if this does not pass, they follow through and let the county to run 911. If they don’t, I think we have failed the people who need 911.”

Commissioner Randy Brodehl, who chairs the 911 board, said he was reluctantly supporting the levy because he did not want to raise taxes, but he agreed that the county should be in charge.

“What’s important to me is we get appropriate management for the 911 center,” Brodehl said. “It’s more important that when someone dials 911 we get the right people, the right equipment, the right information to the providers.”

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