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Costs for dispatch centers weighed; Key question is how to pay

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County officials don’t want to raise residents’ taxes to pay for a new emergency dispatch center, but some local communities don’t know how they will pay for the costs without a tax increase.

The county is required to consolidate its five emergency dispatch centers into one by the end of 2014 and wants all communities to share in those costs, but emergency officials say communities that do not have dispatch services now, such as Bargersville, will have trouble paying their part.

The Johnson County 911 board previously considered building a center or remodeling an existing building, but the county has decided to put the consolidated dispatch center in the basement of the Johnson County Sheriff’s Office, where the county and Franklin dispatch centers already are located.

Now, the county has to find a way to pay for remodeling the basement and figure out how to pay for the annual operating costs, including employee salaries and utilities.

At a glance

The county has considered options for paying for the operating costs of a consolidated emergency dispatch center, including:

Income tax increase

The county could increase the countywide local income tax to bring in nearly $8 million a year to pay for the dispatch center’s construction and operating expenses.

The local income tax is currently at 1 percent, and the county can add on .25 percent to pay for public safety costs. To increase the income tax for public safety, state law requires the county to add another income tax increase to reduce property taxes. That rate has to be at least the same as what the county wants to add for public safety, meaning the new income tax rate would be at least 1.5 percent.

Call volume

Emergency officials are considering paying for the center’s annual costs based on the number of calls that come from each community.

The 911 board would track the number of calls from each community where an emergency worker was dispatched. The communities would pay for their portion of the center each year, based on the last two years of calls made from their area. For example, in 2014, each community would pay for calls made in 2012.

County officials want to pay for the center with money already collected in taxes, but officials in communities that don’t have dispatch services now say they won’t be able to pay for the new center without a tax increase.

Two options being considered are an increase in the income tax, which would bring in about $8 million a year for public safety expenses, and having local communities share the operating costs, Johnson County 911 Executive Director Mike Watkins said.

Johnson County Council members have said they don’t want to increase the local income tax. The county 911 board has suggested communities pay for the center based on the number of 911 calls made from their areas, Watkins said.

If communities split the costs, local officials will have to decide whether the cities, towns and county pay for the center’s costs or the police and fire departments pay for them, Watkins said.

Bargersville Fire Chief Jason Ramey said he thinks the county should inform the public about the income tax option and let them decide in a referendum whether they want the tax increased.

“Somebody’s got to pay for it out of taxes, either property taxes or income tax,” Ramey said.

Remodeling the basement and buying equipment will cost about half the price of building a new center, but officials are unsure exactly how much the center’s operating expenses will be, Watkins said.

Renovations will cost between $2.5 million and $3 million. Building a new center could cost up to $7 million, Watkins said.

Remodeling will cost the county less, but the basement is about 2,000 square feet smaller than what consultants had said was needed for the dispatch center, Watkins said. The board has proposed making administrative offices smaller and not having a room for employees to sleep in or a room for training, Watkins said.

Previously, an Umbaugh and Associates study estimated the county would need $4.1 million to pay for the operating costs and debt for a new building.

Part of the operating costs will be paid for with 911 fees, which are charged monthly to cellphone and land-line phone bills. Johnson County will receive $1.6 million in 911 fees per year for the next three years.

The rest of the money needed to run the center will have to come from elsewhere, such as fees charged to the communities that use it.

In order to pay that fee, smaller communities will have to either cut costs or ask the state to allow them to increase property taxes, Ramey said.

He said he does not know how Bargersville would pay for the center because the 911 board has not yet told communities how much they would have to pay.

The county has the option of increasing the countywide local income tax, which Ramey said is the fairest option for the communities.

The local income tax is currently at 1 percent. The county can add .25 percent, which would bring in $3.3 million for the dispatch center’s operating costs and $4.5 million for communities to spend on other public safety costs, such as buying new vehicles or equipment or paying off loans. To increase the income tax for public safety, state law requires that the county also add a property tax relief income tax used to reduce property taxes. That rate has to be at least the same as what the county wants to add for public safety, meaning the new income tax rate would be at least 1.5 percent.

The 911 board is considering other options for paying for the combined dispatch center, but Watkins said he thinks basing the costs on call volume is fairest for all of the communities.

Watkins said the costs per 911 call would accurately reflect how many resources each community uses because they would be paying based on the number of times an emergency vehicle was dispatched to their area.

The county would track how many calls came from each community with a records management system that would count only calls made where an emergency worker was sent, Watkins said. That means if multiple people call for the same car accident or if someone calls 911 accidentally, those calls won’t be counted toward the communities’ totals unless a police car, fire truck or ambulance was sent, Watkins said.

The communities would pay for their portion of the center annually based on calls made from their area two years prior, Watkins said. For example, a community would pay a bill in 2014 for calls made in 2012.

Emergency officials hope to have a rough idea by next month of how much each community would pay based on call volume. Officials will use the numbers of calls from previous years to figure out how much each community would pay, Watkins said.

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