911 Center proposes fee increase

A proposed ordinance to increase by $1 the monthly wireline enhanced 911 emergency telephone system to get the county’s consolidated emergency communications system up to the current technological standard was the topic of discussion at a public hearing at the county courthouse.

The fee since 1998 has been $2 a month per landline phone. The increase of one dollar for the landline fee brought a number of citizens to the commission meeting. After hearing several points of view from the attending gathering, the commissioners tabled the issue for more information gathering.

911 Icon / Pixabay
911 Icon / Pixabay

“If the ordinance passes, will the cell phone industry make Greenbrier County cell phone ready?” asked Al Whitaker, director of the 9-1-1 Center and Home Security Emergency Management, to those attending the Tuesday morning meeting. Well, according to Whitaker, in order to do that, there’s a lot of catching up to do.

The infrastructure for the center has been in place since 1998. When it is used 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, things get worn out and parts are harder and harder to find, Whitaker said. Additionally, technology keeps advancing and is unlikely to let up. Even now, inquiries from some phone apps will freeze the 9-1-1 website because it is not able to read the newer tech devices. The scope of what is emerging as a serious issue for the county will include upwards of $60,000 to $70,000 for each of the eight cell towers in Greenbrier County in order to handle the advances and upgrades of many different required software.

The 9-1-1 and Home Security Emergency Mgmt. Dept. operates solely from a budget derived from the $2 monthly fee per each landline phone in the county, which is no longer adequate to handle the many demands on the operating systems within Whitaker’s domain, including administration, animal control, local fire and police departments, forestry and the state police. That budget figure averages at $550,000 a year, of which $80,000 is needed each month for general operations. Whitaker said there are 16,000 landline phones in use in the county, however, over the past five years, the county has lost more than 6,000 landline phones. That trend will likely continue although Whitaker said a leveling point has been reached with cell phone increases.

The $3 monthly fee for cell phones is gathered in a pool by the Public Service Commission which uses a formula to distribute the funds proportionately across the state. It is based on population numbers, not the actual number of cell phones in each county. Roughly $600,000 a year comes into the 9-1-1 budget from cell phone fees.

If the ordinance passes, an additional $125,000 a year will be available to begin what Whitaker says is a 5- to 7-year plan to replace and upgrade equipment from office furniture and computers to cell towers. The 9-1-1 addressing and mapping system alone will cost $125,000 to finish, which he said is about a year away from being up and running. Whitaker said he was asking for enough funding to meet current technology standards. Upgrades, he emphasized, will continue and costs will not go down.

Several citizens opposed the fee increase, calling it a tax which they stated seemed unfair to those on fixed incomes and to penalize those with no cell phones. Another option was offered: Put it on the ballot and let the citizens decide whether they want to add another dollar to the landline fee.

Only Tom Cross, a retired Verizon employee, maintained that “The 9-1-1 system is a lifeline in this county.” He said if the electronics systems are not updated, the county will fall behind. He reminded those in the room that Al Whitaker had been honored this year as the best 9-1-1 emergency director in the state.

Whitaker was asked what would happen if the ordinance did not pass. His terse responses were “delays,” “cuts” and “the status quo.” If it does pass, it will go into effect Jan. 1, 2014.