Indiana county leaders worried over 911 funding

County officials across Indiana scrambling to find money to pay for 911 emergency services say they aren't confident of getting help from state legislators, who might be leery of boosting cellphone fees during an election year.

The shift from traditional landline phones to cellphones has cost Indiana's 92 counties millions of dollars in funding for 911 dispatch centers because the fees charged for landline phones are generally higher than those cellphone users pay.

That comes as public safety systems are upgraded to track cellphone calls and improve communications between police and fire departments.

"We have to install technology to keep up with emails and text messaging, and in order to do that, we need funds," said Debbie Schmidtknecht, who oversees the 911 center in southwestern Indiana's Knox County.

One legislative proposal would allow each of Indiana's 92 counties to set a uniform fee of up to $2 a month for all phone lines, compared with the current monthly maximum of $3 for landlines and 50 cents for most cellphones. Another proposal would establish a flat monthly $1 statewide fee that a state board would distribute to counties.

The House Ways and Means Committee is scheduled to discuss the issue Friday, but committee Chairman Jeff Espich said he isn't sure about advancing a plan.

"Nobody can tell me how much how much they were spending five years ago, three years ago or this year and how much they ought to be spending," said Espich, R-Uniondale. "How much do they have, how much do they need? And I don't think they've given me the answers."

The Indiana Association of Counties estimates that 911 fee revenue has dropped statewide about $20 million over the last five years. The nonpartisan Legislative Services Agency doesn't have figures on the landline fees, which are collected by counties, but reports that cellphone fees collected by the state have remained around $28 million for the past three years.

A federal survey in 2010 found that 27 percent of U.S. households had only cellphones — a level that doubled from three years earlier.

The state's funding system for 911 services isn't keeping up with that technology trend, said Stephen Luce, executive director of the Indiana Sheriffs' Association.

"The longer we keep putting this off, the worse it is going to get," Luce said. "We don't see it getting any better."

Schmidtknecht said Knox County officials are directing more than $125,000 from other sources to subsidize the 911 center in Vincennes after its phone fee revenue dropped at least 40 percent within four years.

She hopes the financial bind that counties are facing will get attention from lawmakers, but said she's not optimistic about action during the legislative session that is to end by mid-March.

"This is an election year — nobody wants to put extra money on cellphone devices," she said. "I'm realistic about what's coming."

Rep. Ed Soliday, who is sponsoring one of the funding proposals, said his time as a United Airlines vice president in its crisis center during the 2001 terrorist attacks reinforces for him the importance of making sure local 911 centers have updated communications technology and adequate backup capabilities.

He said all types of phones should be treated equally.

"We need to make sure the kid on the playground pays the same for his phone as grandma does at home," said Soliday, R-Valparaiso.

A lack of action by legislators will just force more of the burden onto the counties, Schmidtknecht said.

"I think that our county will pick up the slack," she said. "I mean we're not closing 911 — how can you close a 911 center? You just can't."

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