While candidates and most ballot issues will vary by district for Tuesday’s election, all Pettis County voters will be asked to consider a 911 tax.
Pettis County already has a 911 tax, but it only applies to landlines. As cellphones became more popular and families did away with their home landlines, 911 tax revenue has dwindled. If the proposal is approved Tuesday, that tax will go away and will be replaced with the new 911 tax.
“We went from $700,000 a year (in 911 tax funding) to last year we had a total of $80,000,” said James Theisen, 911/GIS director for Pettis County. “That’s enough to pay the phone bill and the maintenance contract and that’s about it, there’s no money to upgrade.”
And upgrades are needed, Theisen said. Most of the dispatch equipment being used at the Pettis County Sheriff’s Office is older than many of those operating it. It is also analog, which could eventually create problems when trying to communicate with law enforcement digital radio systems.
Theisen said the newest platform the equipment can operate on is Windows XP, which was released in 2001. He said if they have a problem, it must be fixed in-house or employees have to find older equipment or software to try and make it work.
Pettis County is now able to ask citizens to consider the tax after a state law enacted this year made it possible. It is now up to each of Missouri’s 115 counties to determine if a county 911 tax is needed.
The Pettis County measure seeks to charge a $1 monthly fee assessed per landline and cellular device capable of calling 911. This excludes prepaid cellphones; citizens with those are already paying a state 911 tax that began in January. It is expected to generate $500,000 to $700,000 annually for Pettis County 911 services, plus a percentage of the statewide prepaid cellphone tax. County officials estimate it will cost about $1.4 million over two years to replace current dispatch and radio systems.
The Missouri Department of Revenue would begin collecting the tax in October.
If the tax is passed, the city and county would no longer split the funding for two separate dispatch centers at the Sedalia Police Department and the sheriff’s office. It would be combined to fund a central dispatch center for the entire county. It would be governed by the Pettis County Commission and guided by an advisory board comprised of representatives of all Pettis County emergency services agencies.
As it stands, the plan is to expand SPD’s dispatch area in the Sedalia Municipal Building basement — dispatch did not move to the new headquarters — into a central dispatch.
Presiding Commissioner David Dick and Theisen said the new tax won’t generate 100 percent of needed funding, so the remaining amount would be paid by the City of Sedalia, Pettis County and Pettis County Ambulance District based on call volume. Dick said the Pettis County Fire Protection District will eventually be part of the agreement.
It is unknown when a central dispatch would be created if the tax is passed, but Dick said he expects it would be created within the next two years once enough revenue has been collected.
If the tax isn’t passed, Dick said the city and county will have to continue using their outdated equipment and officials will try to find other revenue sources, although he said he doesn’t know what that would be.
“When your revenue goes from $700,000 to $80,000 and you’re still providing the service, something has to give,” Theisen said. “Dispatchers are getting paid more than 20 years ago, equipment and contracts have gone up while revenue has gone down. It’s just not sustainable long term.”
Sheriff Kevin Bond said he supports the measure and the creation of a central dispatch. He said consolidating services with SPD would benefit county citizens, especially when it comes to medical calls. Currently, any county medical call is routed to the sheriff’s office, but those dispatchers must transfer it to SPD dispatch because SPD handles all dispatching for PCAD. SPD dispatchers are medically trained but sheriff’s office dispatchers are not.
With a central dispatch, all calls from anywhere in the county would be routed to one location, and dispatchers would send out the information to the appropriate agency to respond. All dispatchers would receive the same training.
Bond said a central dispatch would eliminate redundancy and response time delays for PCAD.
“It’s a win-win situation for the community by being able to get more efficient service, more effective service,” he said. “It certainly benefits the law enforcement and public safety agencies by being able to increase the effectiveness of services across the board.”