Bradley County 911 faces continued budget shortfalls

Bradley County 911 faces continued budget shortfalls

June 21st, 2012 by Paul Leach in News

Bradley County 911 Center Director Joe Wilson talks about the battery of technology that takes care of the center's growing call volume in this file photo.

Photo by Paul Leach/Times Free Press.

CLEVELAND, Tenn. -- Bradley County emergency service officials are worried about current and future budgets on the eve of the new fiscal year.

Joe Wilson, director of Bradley County 911, and Danny Lawson, director of Bradley County Emergency Medical Service, both expressed dismay this week over the County Commission's refusal to give $173,745 to the 911 department.

The amount, part of $350,000 requested by the county, Cleveland and Charleston, was intended to stave off a third straight year of budget shortfalls in the Bradley County 911 district. If the budget's not fixed, the department could be designated a "distressed district" and come under state oversight.

"I feel very bad that this body did not consider the cost of support agencies like Emergency Service, including 911, in our window of expanding our community through jobs and people," said Lawson.

Cleveland and Charleston committed to their portions of the $350,000 request, he said.

Keeping up individual dispatch services in the county's emergency agencies would be twice as much as supporting Bradley County 911, Lawson said.

Commissioner Connie Wilson, finance committee chairwoman, said the remaining fund balance for the current fiscal year has been rolled into next year's budget, leaving no extra money for Bradley County 911.

One problem facing state 911 districts is that operations are funded from fees on monthly landline and cellphone phone bills, Wilson has said. Landline fees all go to the 911 district, but only a portion of the cellphone bill does. As the number of cellphones grows, the revenue crisis will get worse.

However, the 911 director said fixing that problem will not eliminate the shortfalls.

Several commissioners said it's a state problem and should be reconciled by the state and not entirely by local governments.

Wilson disagreed.

"I'm going to be blunt -- this is not a state problem, this is a local problem," Wilson said. "The state has never given you money to fund 911 dispatch, and the state never will give you money to fund 911 dispatch."

Commissioner Jeff Yarber said increased funding from revenue sources should be one part of the answer.

The county walks "a fine line" in the matter, he said: Commissioners don't want to raise taxes to fund the 911 department or reduce staffing or service.

Issues beyond funding mechanics may be in play, said Commissioner Adam Lowe, citing a 2010 governmental relations study.

"The state's intent is to have large regional call centers," he said. "Their intent with policies like this is to enforce consolidation. What does that mean to us? That means calls coming out of Hamilton County."

A remedial option for financially distressed 911 districts is to have them merge with willing adjacent districts, said Lynn Questell, executive director for the Tennessee Emergency Communications Board.