911 center battling financial shortfall

Advocate staff photo by BILL FEIG -- Sheriff's Deputy Cedrick Epps, left, chats with Deputy Greta Griffin, seated, in the Pointe Coupee Parish 911 center Friday in Morganza..
Advocate staff photo by BILL FEIG -- Sheriff's Deputy Cedrick Epps, left, chats with Deputy Greta Griffin, seated, in the Pointe Coupee Parish 911 center Friday in Morganza..

Pointe Coupee Parish officials searching for way to ease budget burden

Pointe Coupee Parish’s 911 dispatch center has been in its own state of emergency for quite some time and annually struggles with funding shortfalls, parish officials say.

According to the 2011-12 operating budget for the parish’s 911 system and Office of Emergency Preparedness, it took $819,542 to run the system during the year. However, the tax-based system that funds the center generated only $498,214 in revenues during that period.

The more than $300,000 budget shortfall in 2011-12 was relieved through supplements from the Police Jury and the Sheriff’s Office, which forked over $125,000 and $130,563, respectively, according to the 911 budget summary.

The city of New Roads and the parish’s five fire protection districts provided an additional $65,765, the budget shows.

“I’m paying more than my user share; I look at myself as the subcontractor,” Sheriff Bud Torres said Thursday. “Some pay and some don’t. The lack of total compliance is the cause of the financial problems.”

Torres referred to the three municipalities — Livonia, Fordoche and Morganza — that he said are also in the service area but don’t annually fund the 911 system as they should.

Expenses are projected to rise nearly $200,000 in the 2012-13 fiscal year, Torres said, because of vital equipment upgrades the 911 dispatch center will need to effectively service calls.

That increased financial burden may fall back on the Sheriff’s Office, which is projected to spend about $170,000 on the 911 center, according to the 2012-13 budget.

“But I have limited funds, I have my own budget restraints right now,” Torres said.

Police Jury President Melanie Bueche attributes much of the revenue shortfall to the antiquated telephone surcharges that were set by the parish’s 911 Commission during the 1980s.

Bueche said the five-member commission has largely been inactive since then.

But Keith Davidson, the former chairman of the 911 Commission, presented the Police Jury and parish officials with a new funding plan in December.

Davidson’s plan involves shifting the 911 system from a tax-based facility into a fee-based operator.

Davidson said about $500,000 could be generated annually for 911 if every business and residence in the parish pays a $50 per year 911 user fee.

Davidson’s plan proposes asking the state Legislature to increase the parish’s telephone surcharge to a flat $3 per month fee.

Monthly phone surcharges are set at the following rates: residential phone lines, 77 cents; commercial lines, $1.86; cellphones, 85 cents; broadband phones, $1.

The surcharges generate $244,742 annually, Davidson’s plan says. The $3 flat-rate increase would generate an additional $500,000, he said.

Davidson said Thursday voters would have to approve such changes before they would take effect.

He said he hopes the Police Jury will consider placing the proposal on the fall election ballot.

“The voters of the parish will determine the fate of 911,” Davidson said. “I think we need some modifications to the system so that the Sheriff’s Department is not paying a majority of the money to supplement the shortfall.”

Davidson’s plan asks the Police Jury to appoint new 911 Commission members with full authority to oversee and manage the department instead of just “making recommendations” to the jury.

“Right now you have everything being controlled by the sheriff; no one else has a say,” Davidson said. “And we can’t expect anything different because we aren’t supplying the finances the sheriff has.”

Bueche called Davidson’s plan “a good idea” but added it’s one she doubts the Police Jury would entirely support.

Bueche said voters would probably never support Davidson’s proposed $50 annual user fees or $3 flat-rate tax hikes.

Instead, Bueche said, the public may approve of having the Legislature adjust telephone taxes, and parish officials are already raising the issue with the parish’s legislative delegation.

“We do need the Legislature to raise the rates on telephones,” she said.

In the meantime, to ease the financial burden on the Sheriff’s Office, Bueche said, the Police Jury intends to pull more financial support for 911 from the parish’s fire districts, and apply available grant funds toward equipment upgrades.

This month, Bueche said, the Police Jury will appoint new members to the 911 Commission and call on them to take a more active role in 911 operations.

The new commissioners will not gain oversight authority, she added.

“Personally, I don’t think they need that type of authority,” Bueche said. “That only needs to be in the hands of someone that is an elected official.”