Meridian, Lauderdale County split in question for E-911 budget

Whitney Downard / The Meridian Star

Lauderdale County E-911 Director Jared Stanely, left, presents the county E-911 budget as supervisors Kyle Rutledge, background, and Joe Norwood, foreground, read the budget on their tablets.

As supervisors reviewed revenue and expenses for the upcoming budget year, one question hovered over shared services such as the E-911 dispatch center: What will the City of Meridian pay?

Since early 2017, the Lauderdale County E-911 Dispatch's expenses have increased with the planned update the system's computer-aided dispatch. Simultaneously, revenues from telephone surcharges on landlines have decreased and the city of Meridian has dealt with budget shortfalls.

Over the last three budget years, the City of Meridian paid $775,000 to E-911 compared to Lauderdale County's $1,004,888, according to the county's budget presentation on Monday. The town of Marion, which makes up less than 1 percent of 911 calls, paid $10,571 over the same period. The county projected paying $1,047,871 to the city's $121,610.

Typically, the city, county and town of Marion split "overages," or costs not covered by tax revenue. In 2016, the city and county both paid $225,000 each, with $2,500 from Marion. All three entities increased their contribution in 2017 but the city pulled back in 2018. 

"The only real challenge that we're having in the budget is because the city of Meridian has decided not to participate in funding the overages in the operational budget," Jared Stanley, the E-911 director, said. "We only get a certain amount (of tax revenue) a year, about $750,000. It's just not enough to meet all of our expenses."

State law requires that the county, and by extension the dispatch center, still respond to Meridian 911 calls despite receiving no funding.

"So we're providing those services but, in not receiving that revenue, the county is having to meet the rest of those obligations to make ends meet and to support the budget," Stanley said.

The city disputed this arrangement, saying residents already paid county taxes and contributing to the service twice amounted to "double taxation."

"It is a county system; it should be county provided," George Thomas, the city representative for Ward 1, said in an October, 2018 meeting. "We already paid our county tax."

The CAD upgrades will streamline calls, add a mapping feature and decrease the workload for dispatchers but still require some external updates to the Lauderdale County Sheriff's Department's system, Stanley said Monday. 

"Because we have so many different agencies involved, it's been a longer process than we'd hoped for. Because it's a longer process, the prices have been continuing to increase as well," Stanley said. "This new system allows for something as simple as a traffic stop to be handled by the officer. So when the officer decides that he has the cause to do a traffic stop, he can just tap on the computer that he's on a stop... it shows up over at dispatch but we don't have to worry about the back-and-forth conversations on the radio that tend to delay things."

Officers will be able to run tag numbers, see driver information and be timed on the traffic stop by the new system. When responding to calls at residences, the computer system will show a log of previous incidents at that address. 

"We're always trying to be good financial stewards for the city, the county and the town," Stanley said. "With that, comes making sure that we're only giving out expenses that are necessary. We don't want to overpay on things; we're constantly looking for less expensive ways to continue doing our business. But unfortunately, we don't have much control over our revenue. The state only collects so much revenue for 911. Unless the state makes a change in legislature, which has been proposed for many years, then there's no more revenue that's coming in."

Cuts Stanley outlined to supervisors included personnel, such as eliminating an executive secretary position through attrition and reduced radio operator costs as experienced dispatchers retire and are replaced by newcomers.

"We have to rely on the county, the city and the town to help us balance our budget," Stanley said. "We feel like we've made a good case for ourselves to show that we cannot lower our expenditures any more than it already has been so now we just have to reach out and rely on the county, the city and the town to help us meet those obligations."

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