If you’ve already voted by absentee ballot, you might have been surprised to see a surcharge proposal to fund Calhoun County’s consolidated 911 system on the ballot.  Or, if you didn’t look on the back, you might not have noticed at all.  What is this?  A new tax?  A lot of people say that’s exactly what it is.  A $2 million increase.  For some families and small businesses, their share of that could be a hefty one.

Many people are saying that Calhoun County already has an excellent 911 service and that the current funding method is just fine.   In other words, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”

Here’s the proposal on the ballot:

“County 9-1-1 Surcharge Proposal Shall Calhoun County be authorized to assess a surcharge on all devices capable of accessing the 9-1-1 system located in Calhoun County of up to $3.00 per month for a period of ten (10) years, commencing July 1, 2021, through June 30, 2031, both inclusive, to be used exclusively for the funding of 9-1-1 emergency telephone call answering and dispatch services within Calhoun County, including facilities, equipment and maintenance, and operating costs?”

A similar proposal failed by 63 votes in 2012.  That proposal sought to implement a fee which would be set at a rate of $2.25 per month to help pay for 911 emergency services in the county as well as facility and equipment costs.  In the past, 911 systems were funded by surcharges on landlines, but not many people have those anymore.

The current system is funded on an “average calls per service” system.  Any call that originates in one of the 29 service areas results in a chargeback to that city or township. It’s an expensive budget item for the cities of Battle Creek, Marshall, Albion, and also Emmett Township.  Most of the calls originate in those locations.   93% of the calls come from 9 of the 29 service areas.

Many cities, townships, and counties are facing budget challenges as a result of COVID-19 costs and loss of revenues as a result of the pandemic.   The idea of the surcharge proposal came out of the Calhoun County Consolidated Dispatch Authority (CCCDA) governing board earlier this year.  In a June 12, 2020 letter to Calhoun County Municipalities from CCDDA Executive Director Rich Feole, the idea was pitched as a way to help municipalities deal with budget and revenue reductions.   Feole also wrote that the surcharge proposal could also head off possible 911 system budget cuts.  “CCDA is currently making as many budget reductions as possible without affecting the safety of our responders and citizens.”

Feole was a recent guest on the WBCK Morning Show with Tim Collins.    “Each year, the (CCCDA) governing board will develop a budget that will determine the exact surcharge amount, up to $3.00, per device,” said Feole.  He said if the county board approves the amount, then it would be sent to all of the phone carriers that are used in the county.  Feole says they estimate that the surcharge will be about $2.30 in 2021.

A device is any phone that can call 911.  That can include cellphones, tablets, and smartwatches, as well as business phone lines and any residential landlines that are still in service.   That could amount to a lot of money, but Feole says there is a cap on devices that will be charged, per phone contract.  “For businesses or large families that have more than 10 phone numbers assigned to them, it’s only charged for the first ten, and then one every tenth one after that.  So if you have 20 phone lines in your business, then you would be charged 11 times, not 20 times.  And if you have 30 lines, you would only be charged 12 times, instead of 30 times.”

One business owner we talked to was concerned that they’ll pay separately for the devices in their residence and their business.  “Once you have that first bill, then you’ll know how it’s going to be for the rest of that year,” said Feole. “Or you could call your service provider and ask them how many devices would be charged.”

The dispatch center is staffed by a director, deputy director, shift supervisors, IT administrator, and dispatchers, who work 12-hour shifts.  There are 5 dispatchers and one supervisor on duty most of the time, with 4 in late-night hours. Feole says their CAD system will need to be replaced in three years or so, and their radio system and consoles are almost new.   Fire departments are operating on an older system, and that is an area that could be upgraded in the future. Calhoun County is one of the first in the state to allow texting to the 911 Center.

Some questions that informed voters may be asking themselves are:

  1. Will city, county, and township officials move to lower taxes to offset the surcharge if the proposal passes, or will they just use that money in their general funds for other things?
  2. If they do use it for other things, am I ok with just paying what amounts to a new tax?
  3. Am I ready to support an increase where it’s not all that clear up front  what I’ll pay?

Here’s a chart that shows what the 29 Service User/Areas are currently paying for 911 Dispatch services.  Calhoun County 911 Costs 2020

Service Area Fees 2020
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