Ballot Measure Promises Financial Stability, Streamlined Operations for County 911 Center

Decade-old interlocal agreement cannot keep up with technology needs, advocates say, as center’s budget is projected to ‘fail’ by 2024

By Andy Viano
Dispatchers at work at the Flathead 911 Emergency Communications Center in Kalispell on Sept. 25, 2020. Hunter D’Antuono | Flathead Beacon

The center’s 911 director and other advocates say a new tax on homeowners in Flathead County is essential to sustain operations at the Flathead Emergency Communications Center and support effective radio communication systems for first responders, a similar plea to one that was narrowly rejected by voters six years ago.

Voters in Flathead County will once again face the question this year when they are asked to create the Flathead Emergency Communications Center Special District. A yes vote would secure more than $3.5 million in funding for the new district while adding approximately $17.68 per $100,000 of a home’s assessed value in property taxes.

Voters approved $6.9 million to create the 911 center in 2009 and, at the time, a committee was supposed to develop a solution to finance the operation long-term and plan for capital improvements. That never happened and instead the center’s operating budget is covered through a convoluted interlocal agreement between the county and the municipalities of Kalispell, Whitefish and Columbia Falls, all of whom pay differing amounts. In 2020, Flathead County is responsible for 66% of the budget, Kalispell for 22%, Whitefish for 7% and Columbia Falls for 5%, totaling nearly $2.6 million. The center receives additional funding from grants and a $1 fee assessed on phone bills.

Flathead Emergency Communication Center (FECC) 911 Director Elizabeth Brooks says the center’s current funding structure has kept the center afloat but allowed for little to no flexibility to prepare for the eventuality of technology upgrades or react to a steady increase in calls for service. The center handled 132,013 total incidents in 2019, the most in the facility’s history and 30,000 more than the center’s first operational year (2011), all while staffing levels have actually decreased, Brooks said. As the county’s population continues to grow, Brooks and others believe the number of incidents will only increase.

More critically, however, is the need to make improvements to aging technology that is approaching the end of its lifespan. In addition to the systems dispatchers use to answer 911 calls and relay information to police, fire and EMS workers, the FECC manages radio communication systems for first responders throughout Flathead County, a 5,200-square mile area that includes hard-to-reach places where communication can be challenging. The current systems are 10-plus years old and more modern equipment could allow first responders to communicate more reliably and effectively, something that is vital in an emergency.

“Covering the sort of distance we’re talking about in our county requires a large budgetary commitment,” Brooks said. “We live in an area where there is a lot of support for local law enforcement but without their radio system in a working manner, we’re not doing our part to keep them safe.”

Budget projections created by the FECC show the center will operate at a loss of at least $164,000 per year beginning in 2021 as personnel costs (including health insurance) associated with operating a 24-hour-a-day, 365-day-a-year facility are projected to drive expenses higher. By 2024, the center’s cash reserves are projected to dip below 20%, what is termed as the budget “fail(ing).”

The proposed tax assessment would reverse that trend and change the way the center is managed. The new district, if created, would override the interlocal agreement and transfer oversight of the FECC to Flathead County, as opposed to the six-person 911 board made up of city, county and law enforcement officials that is currently in place. In addition to streamlining the operation for FECC managers, the new structure would eliminate any financial burden from the three municipalities and clarify the funding structure to the public.

Voters were first asked to support additional funding for the FECC in 2014 through a sliding scale that would have impacted commercial properties at a significantly higher rate than residential ones. That measure nearly passed, failing after a recount of more than 30,000 votes by just an 11-vote margin, but even so, advocates wanted to make this year’s attempt “simple and equitable,” according to Katie Williams, a former Whitefish city councilor and alternate on the 911 board who presented the proposal to the Flathead County Commission for inclusion on this year’s ballot.

“Make it something people can understand and people can see, and make it clear,” she said of lessons learned from 2014 and subsequent efforts to add a ballot measure. “Don’t try and tier anything to make it feel like you’re alienating one group or another.”

“No one likes taxes but the fact of the matter is taxes are a burden to everyone until you see what they’re used for. Have one emergency and you’ll feel like it’s worth it.”

andy@flatheadbeacon.com

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