Leaders tackle funding for 911

BY EMILY LE COZ
Daily Journal

TUPELO – Legislators in both houses are working to establish an E911-study committee in response to a Northeast Mississippi plea for help.

Five NeMiss senators submitted a resolution Wednesday asking that the Legislature create a group to look at E911 operations and funding statewide, and to make recommendations on how to improve the system.

A similar resolution is expected to be submitted soon in the House.

The action comes just days after several of the region's county boards of supervisors signed their own resolutions asking the Legislature for help. They say their E911 programs have struggled with higher operating costs coupled with a dwindling revenue stream.

It's a statewide problem that has forced many local governments to put up hundreds of thousands of dollars in additional funds to keep these programs afloat.

“I have been talking to a number of legislators about this situation, to a number of counties about it, and they all think it's a great idea to go back and assess it,” said Johnny Morgan, a former state senator and now a Lafayette County supervisor who has helped champion the issue.

In the Senate, the resolution was authored by senators Gray Tollison, D-Oxford, Nickey Browning, D-Ecru, Eric Powell, D-Corinth, Alan Nunnelee, R-Tupelo, and Bill Stone, D-Ashland.

Tollison said it's his intention for the committee to finish its study and submit its findings by the end of the year.

In the House, the resolution is authored by Rep. Tommy Reynolds, D-Charleston.

“We really think it's important that E911 be funded,” Reynolds said. “The costs have skyrocketed – gasoline, equipment, services. All of that has greatly increased. And the revenue has not increased proportionally to the needs. We've identified the problem. Now we need to identify the solution.”

This problem, according to many, is the rise in cellular phones and decline of telephone land lines.

When the state first passed E911 legislation in the late 1980s, it made sure the program would pay for itself through telephone charges. Residential land lines were billed $1 per month; business lines $2 per month.

The system worked well until the surge of cell phone use in the mid-1990s. While land-line fees still are collected, they don't generate as much revenue because increasingly more people are ditching them in favor of cell phones.

And cell phones bring in less money: Each cell is billed $1 per month in emergency-call fees regardless of whether the phone is for personal or business use. Of that fee, 70 cents go to the local E911 center, 29 cents go to the cell phone company and 1 cent goes to the Mississippi Commercial Mobile Radio Service Board, which collects and distributes the funds.

At the same time, inflation has driven up salary costs and operating costs, and many counties find themselves having to upgrade outdated equipment.