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Commissioners considering sales tax option for 911 Service

Darke County Emergency Services…
By Bob Robinson

Commissioners testing the waters for taking a .25 percent renewable sales tax increase to the voters in November…

DARKE COUNTY - Darke County Commissioner Mike Stegall told Greenville Kiwanians Wednesday that state funding might be going away for the county’s 911 emergency services.

Stegall said that General Fund money pays for the Sheriff’s Department, as well as much of the 911 services, but that the emergency response system funding also includes a $ .28 per month charge on cell phones.

“This funding (cell phone) is in danger of being eliminated in the Statehouse,” Stegall told the group, adding that the county receives about $115,000 a year from the source.

This possible elimination of funding is partly politics, Stegall noted, but it’s also a response to abuse by the eight largest counties in the state. With their concentrated populations, they receive far more funding than they need to operate their 911 service.

“So they use it for other things, like salaries,” he said. “The only way to stop the abuse is to stop the program.”

He said that this hurts the rest of the counties, like Darke, that use the money the way it is intended. He added that Columbus has told him they will fix the problem but no reasonable alternative has been offered.

Beyond the loss of operational funds, one major concern that the county faces is a new system that has been mandated for 2013. Called “Next Gen,” the system will no longer use phone lines, but instead will be a “fiber optic through an Internet protocol with a secure Internet connection.”

It will allow for texting, sending pictures via cell phone directly to responding units, using a GPS locator for callers, reverse 911 and voice.

“Our best estimate is that it will cost between $500 and $600 thousand,” Stegall said. He added that technology is advancing so fast that new upgrades will be needed every 3-5 years.

“The loss of 911 funding is neither assured, nor is it guaranteed to continue,” he said. “Therefore, it is imperative that we take steps and prepare for the worst case scenario by ourselves. The county can no longer count on Columbus for financial assistance.”

Stegall also noted that with the mileage that is covered in a sparsely populated county, patrol cars need to be equipped with a new system called the Spellman System. It lets officers do most of the required paperwork and get criminal profiles, see outstanding warrants and communicate with other counties on suspects while still in their cars. Randolph and Miami Counties already have this system in operation.

The other major concern the county faces is the Darke County Jail. Stegall said the jail is one of two buildings open all the time (the other being County Home). The jail is over 30 years old and must be maintained regularly to increase its longevity.

“It was built to last 25 years,” Stegall said, “but didn’t last five. It was built cheaply. For instance pipes are made of cast iron, the jail doors were actually obsolete when they were purchased. We can’t get parts for them.”

Stegall told Kiwanians that the Commissioners were considering asking the voters to approve a 4-year renewable .25 percent sales tax increase to cover the cost of the “Next Gen” system and upgrade the jail.

“That decision hasn’t been made,” he said. “We’re not going to put it on the ballot and then try to sell it. We’re going to present it to you first. Putting a countywide measure on the ballot is expensive.”

Stegall added that the current county portion of the sales tax (1.5 percent) is the maximum allowed without voter approval.

He acknowledged that the sales tax increase the Commissioners passed several years ago to fund a new courthouse addition was supposed to be temporary and used for that purpose. The dollars that tax has generated are the reason the county has been able to survive state funding cuts.

In 2004, local funding from the state was $1.131 million. In 2011 it was $793.8 thousand. This year it is supposed to be $445 thousand, but Stegall said it might even drop to $220 thousand.

“We don’t anticipate that this .25 percent increase will be needed for more than four years. That’s why we’re suggesting it be a renewable measure.” If it is needed for a longer period of time, he added, voters will have to approve it. Otherwise it goes away.

Stegall said they estimated that the cost of upgrading the jail will be about $650 thousand. Vehicles for the Sheriff’s Office are estimated to be about $300 thousand over five years. One EMA (Emergency Management Agency) vehicle would cost about $45 thousand. That plus the “New Gen” system would come to about $1.5 million.

“I’m thinking closer to $2 million,” Stegall said. The sales tax increase should generate about $990 thousand a year.

“This tax can be removed when it reaches a point where it can sustain itself with interest money (goal of four years). That money can then be used to keep pace with increasing calls, new technology and the aging of the population.”

Stegall said that the Commissioners and other elected county officials have already cut as much as they possibly can.

“There comes a point when you can’t cut any more. We’re as efficient as we can be,” he said.

He noted the support for their efforts from Darke County Auditor Carol Ginn in her 2012 Estimated Revenue and Appropriations where she said, in part, that the county has survived continued state cuts because of the “very dedicated and conservative Darke County Elected Officials and Department Heads.”

In a phone interview, Ginn said that spending for a major capital improvements project will require an additional source of revenue. There is simply no money available otherwise.

“The problem lies in the definition of capital improvements,” she said. “I told them to be sure to define exactly what improvements the money would pay for… then when that has been done, drop the revenue source.”

Stegall was specific about what the money would pay for, and that the levy would be renewable (would have to go to the voters again) if it is still needed after four years.

Stegall said that no solution has been provided by Columbus, yet the deadline for Darke and other counties to meet the mandate is the end of the year.

“We must get ahead of this, not react to the situation, but be proactive.”

Greenville Kiwanis meets every Wednesday at noon at the Chestnut Village Center at the Brethren Retirement Community. Membership is open to residents interested in fellowship and a desire to serve their community and its youth.

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