Saturday, November 28, 2020

911 funding proposal comes with nuances

| July 26, 2020 1:00 AM

Once again, Flathead County voters are being asked to support a ballot measure that will tax property owners to pay for ongoing equipment upgrades at the Flathead Emergency Communications Center known as the 911 center. It’s the third such proposal in six years, and obviously the county commissioners are hoping the third time’s a charm.

The proposal to be placed on the Nov. 3 ballot would raise just over $3.5 million annually and cost the owner of a $300,000 home around $53 a year. The commissioners have acknowledged this could be a tough sell amid a pandemic. But they also know that after going more than a decade without any significant investment in capital improvements at the 911 center, the can has been kicked down the road long enough that it’s time for action or jeopardize the ability to adequately respond to emergencies.

We can argue all day long about whose fault it was that a capital improvement component wasn’t built into the original funding scenario — a $6.8 million bond passed that built the center but didn’t provide money for equipment upgrades as time went on.

To recap the 911 funding history, in 2014 a ballot measure that would have raised about $1.8 million a year fell just 10 votes short after a recount. A year later the commissioners proposed a special district with a flat tax of $25 a year for homeowners and a sliding scale of $50 to $1,000 for businesses. That plan was scrapped amid huge opposition, largely and understandably from the business community.

The latest proposal, adopted by the commissioners this week, seems like a reasonable request, but as they say, the devil is in the details, and voters should understand what they’re voting for.

The county’s three incorporated cities have chipped in a portion of the funding for the 911 center since an interlocal agreement was forged in 2009, and they’ve long complained city residents essentially are billed twice for emergency services, once by the city and once by the county.

Currently the county contributes 66% of the 911 budget, or $1.7 million levied for the coming year; Kalispell puts in 22%, or $594,303 this year; Whitefish adds 7%, or $189,097 and Columbia Falls adds 5% or $135,069 for the coming year.

The new tax district would eliminate the cities’ requirement to help fund the 911 center, essentially shifting the operation of the center from the 911 board to county control. However, city officials could opt to continue to levy the same amount of taxes as they have for the 911 center and use it instead to benefit city services. If residents in Kalispell, Columbia Falls and Whitefish don’t want to keep paying that tax, they’d need to take up the matter with their own city officials.

Though cities wouldn’t be contributing financially to the 911 center if the levy passes, by state law the cities must be represented on the center’s operations board.

This latest levy proposal would bring in about $800,000 a year to largely be earmarked for capital improvements. The county has budgeted out capital needs over the next 20 years.

We fully support the 911 center and the important role it plays in providing emergency services. It’s time to solidify a fix for the equipment upgrades that are crucial not only to the center but to all of us who rely on first responders when the time comes.