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Another levy request proposed to help 911 Center

by Jeremy Weber
Daily Inter Lake | July 11, 2020 8:57 PM

When Flathead County voters go to the polls in November, they likely will once again be asked to consider a mill levy to help fund the Flathead Emergency Communications Center, six years after the last such effort came up short.

The county commissioners will vote at 9:15 a.m. Tuesday on a resolution that would place the creation of a special district for the 911 dispatch center on the Nov. 3 general election ballot.

Over the last three months, the city councils of Kalipsell, Whitefish and Columbia Falls have passed resolutions in support of the new levy, which would tax residents based on the value of their property. The new levy would cost a home assessed at $200,000 about $35 a year on their property tax bill and would primarily be used to help raise much-needed funding for capital improvements to the 911 communications system.

The measure would also bring the center under county control, as opposed to the six-person administrative board under which it has operated since its inception in 2009.

“This has been an issue for many, many years. We have tried twice to change the funding mechanism and both times it has failed, but the board thinks it is time to try again,” County Administrator Mike Pence said. “The idea is to put a question on the ballot to change the funding mechanism to the creation of a special district and then setting assessment fees for properties to provide funding for the operation of the 911 Center.”

The bulk of the center’s current $3.6 million annual budget comes from fees paid by each of the three incorporated cities based on their population, bringing in $2.59 million, with additional funding coming from a tax on telephone services and other sources. One problem with the current system is that city taxpayers essentially pay twice, once in city taxes and again at the county level.

While the Kalispell and Whitefish resolutions of support passed unanimously, it was this double taxation issue that led Columbia Falls Mayor Don Barnhart to cast the lone vote against his city’s resolution at the council’s June 15 meeting.

“This proposal would make it so that everyone in the county is paying the same amount, which I am totally for and have been for many years. What I am unhappy with was that what was presented to us did not clarify or show that the citizens of Columbia Falls would no longer be charged twice. I am for the levy, but I didn’t care for the way it was presented to us,” Barnhart said. “I am a hundred percent for the passing of the levy, I just want to make sure that the people who are going to vote have a clear understanding of what this change is going to mean to them. If you want people to vote for something, you have to be upfront about what is going to happen.”

The proposed assessment for the levy would bring in an estimated $3.5 million in its first year, or just over $900,000 more than the current interlocal agreement. It’s money that 911 Director Elizabeth Brooks said the center sorely needs to keep its equipment up-to-date.

“Currently, we are keeping the lights on, but as far as making improvements to keep up with the needs of our first responders, that’s where we are falling short,” Brooks said. “People hear 911 Center and they think about the dispatchers sitting in a room. What they don’t think about are our communications system and all of the equipment that requires. We are a county the size of Connecticut, and that takes a lot to keep covered. When you are funding 911, it’s not just the dispatchers, it’s also everything that is required to keep that communications network functioning.”

With several aging transmitters and repeaters in some areas that are accessible only by pack animal, snowmobile or helicopter, the Emergency Communications Center is looking to fund $1.24 million in capital improvements over the next five years. The center is currently setting aside $158,000 per year for capital improvements, but is having to dip into its cash reserves to do so.

“There is no magic money for 911. Not in the current budget,” Columbia Falls City Manager and FECC Administrative Board member Susan Nicosia said. “The budget we have now isn’t sufficient to provide long-term capital funding and that is something we must have to keep our equipment up-to-date.”

While Brooks is not worried about the 911 communications equipment failing anytime in the near future, she stressed that the center is fighting an ongoing battle to keep its equipment up-to-date as they combat an increase in communications interference as the population of the Flathead Valley continues to grow.

“We have good people here in both the radio and IT side of things who are able to squeeze as much life out of our current equipment as they can, but there are needs that we will not be able to meet in the future if we do not have a funding solution,” she said.

Reporter Jeremy Weber may be reached at 758-4446 or jweber@dailyinterlake.com.