ELIZABETHTON — Most of the time 911 is the agency in Carter County that warns law enforcement, fire and medical responders of emergencies. Recently, the roles have been reversed and Elizabethton Police Chief Matt Bailey has begun to sound the alarm of an emergency at 911.
Bailey recently became chairman of the Board of Directors of the Carter County Emergency Communications District 911, and he has begun to warn city and county leaders about a funding emergency.
The warning comes from the most recent audit of the agency by the accounting firm of Blackburn, Childers and Steagall. It is a warning that repeated a finding from 2010.
The 2011 audit said “for the past two years, the district has incurred a negative change in net assets. For the 2010 fiscal year, the decrease in net assets was $6,187 and for the June 30, 2011, fiscal year, the decrease in net assets was $41,117.”
The audit finding concluded with saying: “A negative change in net assets indicates a District is not financially balanced for that term.” The audit went on to warn that a district that has a negative change in assets for three consecutive years is considered “financially distressed” according to Tennessee law.
Bailey assured citizens that the district’s bare-bones budget for the 2011-12 fiscal year is balanced without using reserves.
It is important not to have the same finding for a third consecutive year. He said if a district is categorized as financially distressed, it means the state is allowed to come in and take control of the district in order to correct the problems.
Like many financial problems, there is more than one reason for the recent difficulties of Carter County 911. Bailey said there are two causes, one a problem that affects districts all across the state and one that is entirely local.
The statewide problem is the continuing decline in the number of landline phone subscribers as more and more residents give up their traditional phones and use cell phones in their place.
Residential customers using landline phones pay a tax of $1.50 a month, which goes to the local 911 district. Commercial customers pay a $3 tax to 911. The district does receive revenue from cell phones, but that is regulated though the Federal Communication Commission.
On a state level, the Policy Advisory Committee of the Tennessee Emergency Communications Board recently commissioned a study of 911 funding. During the meeting Nov. 16, the committee was told that landlines were decreasing by an estimated 8 percent a year. Projections are that landline revenues across the state will be only half the current amount by 2019.
The decline in revenue has other 911 districts in the region feeling the pinch.
Randall Lewis, assistant director of the Washington County 911 District, said “with people getting rid of their landlines, we have seen a decrease on the landline side of it.” He said the agency has made up for the loss by tightening the belt and looking for replacement revenue.
“We cut back in certain areas. The wireless surcharges have helped and the state communications board has given us some additional funding on the wireless side. We’re getting some of the wireless money through reimbursements and grants for training and equipment.”
Bailey said Director Dale Blevins has done an excellent job in watching expenditures, even keeping an eye on such mundane things as cleaning supplies and looking for bargains.
But Bailey said the financial decline in Carter County is compounded by a local funding problem. He said when the agency was established, the city and county agreed to move the dispatchers from the Elizabethton Police Department and the Carter County Sheriff’s Department to 911. He said part of the understanding was that the city and county would continue to fund the positions.
“We weren’t able to find a written document,” Bailey said of the original agreement, but he said they went back to the very beginning of 911 and looked at invoices which showed the city and county payments.
At first, the invoices show city and county payments to fund the employees’ salaries and benefits. Sometime after the first few years, that seems to have changed and the funding was designated as going for an outside agency.
Even though funding as an outside agency remained constant, the result was a decline in revenue as the city and county raised salaries and had to pay more for benefits, especially for increased health insurance payments and retirement benefits.
Bailey said the funding for 911 coming from the state is intended for training and equipment, not for payroll. That is a local matter, and Bailey plans to approach both the city and county during the next budget cycle to correct the shortfall.
As chief of police and chairman of the 911 board, Bailey said he has to wear two hats. It’s his job as chief to watch out for the interests of the city, but he said keeping a viable 911 is in the city’s best interests.
“It is a great bargain for the city,” Bailey said. “With the way call volume has increased, we would have to hire two dispatchers per shift if 911 went away. That is eight people.” He said training would cost $300,000 per year. Plus the city would have to install about $750,000 in equipment.”
There is also the problem with where to put the dispatchers. Bailey said the old office where the dispatchers worked has been eliminated by renovations in the police station, so more money would have to be spent to provide a work area for them.
There is one other powerful fact that must be considered by city and county officials who say 911 service should be ended. The service was established by a referendum of the people, not a decision by the City Council or County Commission.
Press Staff Writer Becky Campbell
contributed to this story.