911 funding remains critical

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Some important local issues seem to linger unresolved for decades. The Kalispell bypass was one, and the courthouse couplet is another, but as important as those have been to the character and development of our community, they were not life-and-death issues.

Funding for the 911 dispatch system very well could be, yet for the past decade that funding has been patched together. The patches have worked, and so has the dispatch system, but the funding level hasn’t allowed for important safety updates and maintenance to be made.

When the state-of-the-art dispatch center was built seven years ago, county and city officials knew they would need to determine a way to sustain operational funding for the long term. But if they thought it would be easy, they were sorely mistaken. The cities and county could never agree on an equitable division of responsibility, and the interlocal agreement that supported 911 chugged along out of sheer entropy.

In 2014, a new funding formula was put before the county’s voters and was rejected by just 10 votes out of more than 30,000 cast. Then the following year, the county commissioners came up with an alternate funding plan that would have created a special taxing district for 911. That, too, was rejected, this time through protests made by property owners affected by the tax.

Now the county and the cities of Whitefish, Kalispell and Columbia Falls are talking once again about how to find fair and consistent funding for the emergency services system.

Currently, the 911 center is funded by a property tax levy of about 6 mills that funds a portion of the sheriff’s budget — a funding mechanism that generates $1.5 million annually for the center. The three cities contribute money based on population, and a small tax on county residents’ phone bills brings in the rest of the operating money.

The center’s budget is about $3.2 million, enough to cover operational costs, but not to pay for equipment upgrades or ongoing maintenance. We’ve long argued that public safety should be the No. 1 priority for our public servants, and we hope that the recently renewed conversation will lead the county and cities to find a funding mechanism that will work once and for all.

This is not a discussion we can risk having unresolved for much longer.

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