Counties slow to say plans for 911 merger

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The Arkansas 911 board has not received required plans from any of the state’s counties to consolidate 911 operations to comply with a 2019 law, said CJ Engel, executive director of the board of Arkansas. 911 from Arkansas, in an interview.

Under the Public Safety Act of 2019, counties with more than one public safety response point — a central location where all 911 calls are answered — must submit plans by Jan. 1 to merge. 911 centers.

Failure to submit consolidation plans would require the Arkansas 911 Board to choose a single entity in each county, whether county or city, to receive quarterly state funding from $1.30 public safety charge on cell phone bills.

No consolidation plan has yet been submitted, Engel said.

“The plan gives them two years to put the plan into action. As long as they come up with a plan, that money will stay the same until the consolidation is done in the next two years,” Engel said. “If they say, ‘Hey, we just don’t want to play together and we’re just going to do our own thing. We’re not going to submit a plan, “so the board will have to make the decision of where the money will go after January 1, 2023.”

When the Public Safety Act was passed, there were approximately 114 PSAPs in the state. The number has since dropped to 98, with some consolidating on their own.

The law initially allowed a maximum of 77 funded 911 centers, but that amount has since been adjusted to a maximum of 81 PSAPs — one in each county except Arkansas’ three largest (Benton, Pulaski, and Washington), which are each assigned. Three.

Nearly two million 911 calls are handled each year by state 911 systems.

Currently, 14 counties in the state have more than one 911 operations center: Benton, Clark, Crittenden, Faulkner, Garland, Lonoke, Miller, Pulaski, Saline, Sebastian, St. Francis, Union, Washington, and White counties .

THE ACT

The Public Safety Act of 2019, or Act 660, was forged to overhaul the 911 system, make it more efficient, pave the way for the next-generation 911 system, establish the 911 Board of Arkansas, and provide updates. level and maintenance funding for Arkansas Wireless Information. Network.

Next-Generation 911 is a wireless telephone service that allows dispatchers to receive emergency text message communications and information, such as videos and photographs.

Last fall, the 911 Board of Directors selected AT&T to implement next-generation 911 service in an effort to improve emergency communications across the state. The $28 million contract will be paid over the next seven years.

Bill 660 repealed three existing cell phone charges — local 911 rates, Arkansas universal service charges, and emergency telephone service charges — which totaled 65 cents. The new law established a uniform security connectivity fee of $1.30 per month for every device, including tablets and other devices that use data.

The doubling of cellphone charges has made Arkansas’ wireless service charges the 11th highest in the nation, according to the National Emergency Number Association, a nonprofit that promotes 911 implementation and awareness. .

The tax generated $50.9 million in 2021, with $43.5 million — or 83.75% — split among individual PSAPs in the state.

The Arkansas 911 board keeps 1.25% of fee revenue for operations and costs and 15% of the fee goes into a pot – currently totaling $8.5 million – to reimburse PSAP owners for the costs of implementing their consolidation plans and other expenses.

FAULKNER COUNTY

There are currently two PSAPs in Faulkner County, one owned by the county and one owned by the City of Conway. Both operations are housed under one roof and work side by side.

An 11-member steering committee — made up of various police chiefs, mayors and sheriff’s office officials — voted last week to consolidate the PSAPs under the city.

Conway Deputy Police Chief Chris Harris said the city was not receiving more money as part of the arrangement. It only means that the tax funds would all go through city coffers — instead of being shared with the county — once the consolidation is complete.

“All of this is just saying which entity owns the budget and whether future employees will be county or city employees,” Harris said.

In 2021, Faulkner County received $810,785.59, while Conway received $879,120.87, according to state 911 board records.

The agreement reached by the committee is now in the hands of county and city prosecutors to draft an interlocal agreement, which must be heard in Conway City Council and Faulkner County Quorum Court and made into an order.

The steering committee will then become a council that will oversee the consolidation of the two CASPs.

After the deal is finalized, Harris said a search will begin for a new manager to oversee the consolidated 911 center.

Although there was some debate over which entity had the best benefits, it was decided that the city had the highest salary and that existing county 911 dispatchers would have their salaries increased to match dispatchers from the city. Current county 911 dispatchers can choose to continue county benefits, but new hires will receive city benefits.

Conway Mayor Bart Castleberry said in an interview that no 911 employees would lose their jobs as part of the consolidation and more would likely need to be hired.

“Consolidation will likely be completed well before the 2025 deadline,” Castleberry said. “We will look at the infrastructure and develop for the future.”

FRONTIER CITY

The consolidation poses particular challenges for border counties like Miller County, which is partnering with Bowie County, Texas to provide 911 services in Texarkana.

The Arkansas side of Texarkana operates two 911 dispatch centers, one at the Miller County Sheriff’s Office and the other at the Bi-State Justice Center, which primarily covers emergency calls within the city limits.

Texarkana uses its 911 tax revenue to pay Texas, which operates the Bi-State Justice Center, while Miller County funds are used for its own 911 center.

In 2021, Texarkana received $446,499, while Miller County received $202,110, according to documents provided by the Arkansas 911 board.

“The distribution is based on population, so we’re getting more funding,” Texarkana Mayor Allen Brown said.

Miller County as a whole has a population of approximately 44,000, with approximately 30,000 residing within the city limits.

The state’s 911 Board of Directors authorizes two PSAPs to counties with populations over 150,000. Those with more than 350,000 inhabitants are allocated three centres.

Miller County Judge Cathy Harrison appealed to the Arkansas 911 Board to allow the two PSAPs to continue due to the unique circumstances. The board rejected the request at its June meeting.

“We did everything,” Harrison said. “We’ve had meetings with the city and we’ve talked to other cities. For Miller County, this will bankrupt us.”

It currently takes about $440,000 a year to operate the county’s 911 system, Harrison said.

“That would go up to about $900,000 a year if we were to consolidate and pay Texas,” Harrison said. “That’s not an option.”

The $3.4 million it costs to operate the Bi-State Justice Center is currently split between Texarkana, Bowie County and Texarkana, Texas. Each entity currently contributes approximately $1.1 million per year. That would be split four equally if Miller County were to join, which means about $919,000 each.

And if Miller County chooses not to consolidate, it will lose annual 911 cellphone fee funding.

“I’m not going to join Bi-State,” Harrison said. “But that’s what [Arkansas 911] the board decides in the end.”

The county’s new 911 center is just 3 years old and has three dispatch terminals. The center serves as a backup to the Bi-State system.

“Miller County put the money for it out of the county’s general fund,” Harrison said.

Harrison said she thinks the state’s plan to reduce the number of PSAPs is good, but they should have considered consolidating neighboring counties with smaller budgets into joint PSAPs instead of focusing on individual counties.

“We have a lot of counties that don’t have up-to-date PSAPs and outdated equipment,” Harrison said. “They should have consolidated counties that can’t afford to upgrade.”

Engel, the executive director of the Arkansas 911 Board, said the county entity that receives the funding is not required to share the total funds.

So, in theory, the 911 tax fee currently split between the county and the city could be combined and given only to the city if not consolidated by the deadline.

But there’s no rule or stipulation that says the city can’t turn around and give the funds to the county every quarter.

“It will be the same amount, but will only go to one center,” Engel said.

Brown, the mayor of Texarkana, said there are decisions to be made, with the city potentially exiting the two-state partnership and creating its own PSAP with the county.

“It’s a very complicated process to watch,” Brown said. “We need to work with the county on a consolidation plan that will be affordable for the city and the county and, most importantly, make sure citizens have 911 service.”

THE FUTURE

The State 911 Board of Directors will review consolidation plans as they are received, but will not approve or deny proposals.

“It’s up to the local courts,” Engel said. “We don’t tell locals how to do consolidations and we don’t force consolidation. It’s supposed to be left to them.”

After January 1, time is running out for all consolidation plans to be implemented by the first of 2025.

“We need to bring multiple entities into one,” Engel said. “We know it’s not easy. We know it won’t happen overnight.”

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