Lee County E911 close to formal agreement with municipalities

I'm a journalist focused on government, policy, politics and people.
I find what matters and bird dog it like nobody's business.

By Robbie Ward/NEMS Daily Journal

TUPELO – Lee County’s 20-year-long “gentleman’s agreement” with its municipalities related to emergency communications expenses came to a stop in this current fiscal year, but Tupelo’s city council wants to take a new plan one a year at a time.
When the E911 board meets on Thursday, the seven members will continue discussions on a memorandum of understanding that formally binds cities and towns in the county to paying their fair share, the second type of agreement in the board’s history.
The current formal agreement ends on Oct. 1.
The agreement, approved by all entities except for the city of Tupelo, calls for a three-year arrangement and a 10 percent increase in contribution each year.
Paul Harkins, 911 coordinator for Lee County, said the suggested 30 percent increase in payments over three years is needed since contributions from municipalities haven’t always been consistent. Some municipalities participating in the service haven’t always paid the amount agreed on.
“Some didn’t pay anything,” Harkins said.
The current overall budget for E911 communications is $500,000. Proposed increases have the budget rising to $665,500 in Fiscal Year 2016.
Without a formal contract until this current fiscal year, the county had little legal authority to enforce the agreement.
During a recent work session with the Tupelo City Council, Tupelo Fire Chief Thomas Walker, a member of the E911 board, explained the proposed increase. Council members said they preferred to approve the agreement for a one-year extension because of the proposed increases.
“We’d like to approve this for one year and see quarterly budget expenses,” said Fred Pitts, Tupelo City Council president.
The agreement is also on the agenda for the Tupelo City Council meeting Tuesday.
Tupelo officials have said the city likely will remain in the agreement for years to come, based on financial costs of running a city-based system. The city would likely pay an estimated $1.75 million in equipment costs and $388,000 in salaries to run its own system, Walker said.
Harkins said he didn’t anticipate any issues with other municipalities if the length of the agreement changes.
“We’ll just do it for one year instead of three,” he said.
Municipalities covered by the E911 communication service include Guntown, Plantersville, Baldwyn, Shannon, Nettleton, Verona, Tupelo and Saltillo, each paying based on its percentage of the county’s overall population. The North Mississippi Medical Center based in Tupelo also pays to the dispatch system.
Lee County Administrator Sean Thompson said all municipalities and the hospital system are currently paying amounts proposed.
Municipalities and the county receive surcharges paid by landline and cellphone users to help fund the service.
Along with inconsistent funding, the emergency system has budget challenges related to increased costs with technology and replacement of equipment from wear and tear.
Harkins said having no funding increases from municipalities had led to dipping into E911’s “rainy day” fund, which has been significantly depleted.
robbie.ward@journalinc.com