When registered voters in Texas County go to the polls on Tuesday, April 8, one of the issues they’ll cast ballots on will determine whether local 911 service will continue as people know it or be relegated for change.

At issue is funding the service, which began in January 1995 through an agreement between Texas County and neighboring Wright County. Basically, that agreement formed a cost-effective partnership between the two counties to conduct a 911 service that was funded by a 15 percent tariff on local telephone bills, as approved by voters in both counties in the fall of 1993. Service began when a central dispatch center known as as Wri-Tex 911 was set up and still operates on the Texas County Memorial Hospital campus.

Since then, cellular phones have largely replaced the landline versions, and a recent study showed that landline usage in Missouri has dropped 70 percent. Similar change has happened nationwide, and 49 states have responded by creating legislation allowing tariffs on cellular bills in order to continue adequate funding of 911 services. Missouri is the only state that hasn’t.

In addition to the vastly reduced source of funding through landline fees, Texas County is facing the reality that Wright County has chosen to exercise its option to terminate the agreement and conduct its own 911 service. In turn, the three members of the Texas County Commission have proposed –– and are unanimously in favor of –– a 3/8 of one percent sales tax for the purpose of continuing to provide a central dispatch service for fire protection, ambulance service and other emergency services. The tax would have no “sunset,” or designated end date.

Should voters give their OK in April, the 15-percent landline fee would no longer exist, and the commission would (by state law) appoint a seven-member board to oversee Texas County’s new 911 system, including administration of all funding collected from the sales tax. From there on, board seats would be elected positions, with county citizens choosing members by vote.

If the tax fails, the current dedicated 911 dispatch center would dissolve, and 911 calls would be routed to a yet-to-be-determined answering point (possibly the sheriff’s department) or even multiple points.

“It’s such a valuable tool to have it all in one spot,” Presiding Commissioner Fred Stenger said, “and to have people who are trained for only one task and whose job is to do only that one thing.”

Under the 911 system that’s on the verge of ending, commissioners from Texas and Wright counties made up the 911 board. Believing the best future of local 911 service was to continue the dual arrangement, Texas County’s trio of commissioners spent the better part of the past year trying to convince Wright County not to bolt from the agreement.

“There was a clause in the original agreement that either party could back out,” Stenger said. “They decided about a year ago that they were going to go their own way. We tried to show them that this probably wasn’t going to work the way they thought, but nothing happened.”

Numerous other Missouri counties –– both rural and urban –– have sales taxes in place to fund 911 service.

“We pursued just about every other option we could think of,” Stenger said. “We even looked at outsourcing, but that wasn’t practical or affordable.”

As the popularity of cellular phones has grown, the Missouri legislature has justified its stance on not charging 911 fees on cellular bills by classifying cell phones as “radio devices” rather than phones.

“They refuse to acknowledge them as phones,” Stenger said. “But that goes against so many other things in this state. With law enforcement, for example, a search warrant is required to look at someone’s cell phone, because they’re protected under the same Fourth Amendment right as a landline. And if you ask someone to use their cell phone, you don’t ask if you can borrow their radio device.

“So if the Supreme Court calls it a telephone, and we all call it a telephone, what’s the hang up in Jeff City with calling them telephones?”

“Missouri counties have repeatedly gone before the legislature to try to get that changed, but without success,” County Clerk Don Troutman said.

District 1 Commissioner John Casey said a cellular bill fee would make more sense nowadays because more people would be funding 911 service than the dwindling numbers who pay for it via landline bills.

“It would be a lot fairer,” Casey said. “I don’t like the idea of any kind of tax, but sales tax is probably the fairest in this case. It would have been better if the legislators would have let us put this on the ballot and just say cell phones are phones.”

Stenger said options are being discussed regarding possibly moving and improving the 911 call center if the funding measure passes. The old sheriff’s department and jail space in the county administrative building is one location being considered.

But without adequate funding, the call center’s location will be the least of anyone’s worries.

“When we first started talking about 911, I only knew of two cellular phones in the county,” Troutman said. “Who would have ever thought our funding source would dry up? But over the years, it has. And the good thing about a sales tax is that if you have inflation, it will keep up, whereas a flat fee really doesn’t.”

Troutman said the county annually budgets about $360,000 to $400,000 to fund 911, but nowhere near that much is coming in from landline fees.

“It’s sad and we’re almost embarrassed at budget time,” District 2 Commissioner Linda Garrett said. “But if you don’t have the money, you don’t have the money.”

“People need to remember that 911 is not about a fire department, a sheriff’s department, a police department, an ambulance service or anything else like that,” Troutman said. “It’s about getting people –– whether young, old or in between –– connected to an emergency service.

“It’s a necessity that’s vital to have, and one we have come to take for granted.”

“It’s an important issue, and the people have an opportunity to decide on it,” Casey said. “They voted it in, now they need to decide if they want to keep it. But we can’t keep going the way it is.”

The Texas County Commission welcomes questions and input from county citizens about 911 service and all other subjects and issues. Call 417-967-3222 or stop by the commission office in the county administrative building on Grand Avenue in Houston.

To learn more about the history and operation of Wri-Tex 911, click on this link to a story that appeared in the Houston Herald in January 2012:

http://www.houstonherald.com/news/first-contact/article_9ad87da4-4790-11e1-8d62-0019bb2963f4.html

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