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911 Authority board seeks permission to increase the monthly surcharge to fund emergency service

Dialing for dollars


Calls are on the rise in El Paso-Teller counties. - DESIGN BY DUSTIN GLATZ WITH ASSETS FROM SHUTTERSTOCK
  • Design by Dustin Glatz with assets from Shutterstock
  • Calls are on the rise in El Paso-Teller counties.

Having overspent revenue last year by nearly $3 million, the El Paso-Teller County 911 Authority soon will seek to more than double the monthly rate charged on all telephones in the two counties, including cell phones.

The current charge is 70 cents per month. The proposed new rate would be $1.90 per month, or an increase of 171 percent.

The rate, which could generate an added $11 million annually, would help fund "next generation" 911 technology. It also could help the agency continue a recent practice of funding other agencies' personnel in dispatch centers.

But first, the authority needs permission from the Colorado Public Utilities Commission, which considers 911 agency increase proposals that seek fees higher than 70 cents per month.

"There's history that organizations have asked for 'X' and the PUC has said, 'Yeah, we don't see the justification for that,'" says 911 Authority administrator Carl Simpson.

The 911 Authority, created in 1990, charged 50 cents per month until 2004 when the fee was raised to 70 cents. The authority considers itself an enterprise, which it says exempts the agency from spending limits imposed by the Taxpayer's Bill of Rights.

Its board is composed of nine members: Two are appointed by the El Paso County Board of County Commissioners, one is appointed by the Teller County Board of County Commissioners, three are appointed by Colorado Springs City Council, and the other three are appointed by the board itself.

The authority employs 19 people who provide software and "back end" support to participating agencies that answer 911 emergency calls from each of the five dispatch and communications centers, which include El Paso County, Colorado Springs, Teller County, Woodland Park and Cripple Creek. The authority also ties its system into local military bases and recently contributed to the development of a new dispatch center at Fort Carson.

The authority doesn't answer 911 calls, but provides technology for the 911 system, training for dispatchers and quality control, Simpson says.

"We take the burden of operating the system so they can focus on operations," he says. "Our team here listens to 1,000 calls a month from all dispatch centers, and evaluates them to the standards, and those reports are given to dispatch supervisors so they know how their employees are performing."

The 911 Authority also signs people up for reverse 911 notification.

Surcharges can be increased by the board beyond 70 cents per month, if the PUC gives approval.

Since at least 2009, the surcharge revenue has hovered around $6 million, which always exceeded spending. But last year, the board spent about $2.9 million more than it took in. That's because the board authorized spending roughly $3.5 million to supplement various law enforcement agencies' call-taker pay, at $20,000 each. So if a call center has 10 employees, its supplemental payment was $200,000 in 2015.

That's not to say the call-takers received higher pay, but rather the agencies were able to divert payroll money to other needs, such as vehicles or equipment. Those other needs can't be directly funded by 911 revenues, because the statute specifies that funds collected from the surcharge are to be spent on 911 "equipment costs, the installation costs, and the directly-related costs of the continued operation of an emergency telephone service..."

The board voted again this year to do the same supplement. For 2015 and 2016, the board authorized: to Colorado Springs call center, $3,382,499; El Paso County Sheriff's Office, $1,479,285; Woodland Park Police Department, $310,357; Fountain Police Department, $467,142; Teller County Sheriff's Office, $389,285; and Cripple Creek Police Department, $350,357.

Thus, the payments essentially supplement law enforcement budgets, though the El Paso County Sheriff's Office and the Springs Police Department both receive funding from special sales taxes dedicated to public safety.

"The objective is to ensure that staffing in the communications centers meets the demand of the public," Simpson says. "Want to make sure when 911 lines ring, they're answered and you get great service."

But although the authority had a fund balance of about $17 million to end 2015, continued supplements to law enforcement budgets at $3.5 million a year clearly isn't sustainable.

There are about 772,000 phones in the two-county area whose owners pay the 70-cent monthly charge, Simpson says. Those include homes, businesses and cell phones. If the fee is increased as requested, the new charge would generate about $17.6 million a year.

That would provide funding for enhanced capabilities, such as allowing smartphone users to send photos of a suspect or license plate number, video of a crime in progress or coordinates of their location to 911 dispatchers, he says. He wasn't sure if those services are provided elsewhere in the state.

It's unclear when the rate-increase request will be submitted to the PUC, though board meeting minutes indicate that will happen soon.

Also unclear is whether the board will conduct a public hearing on the issue, considering it voted May 25 with no apparent opposition to adopt a resolution that authorizes the board to increase the rate "upon approval of such increased rate by the Public Utilities Commission."

It's worth noting that at the May 25 meeting, according to the meeting minutes, El Paso County Commissioner Peggy Littleton suggested the Authority "issue a press release to let the citizens know what the increase will be paying for."

PUC records show that 911 monthly charges in 24 Colorado counties are $1 a month or more, and charges in 33 counties are 70 cents or less.

The highest current charge, at $1.75, is collected in Phillips, Summit and San Juan counties.

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