Phone bills may go up to fund 911

PHOTO BY CHRISTOPHER TOMLINSON—Bill Arcieri(cq)a dispatcher in the 911 call center takes a call, at the call center.Art to go with Mike Wiggins’s story on the 911 surcharge.Sent as 911 CALL CENTER 10-23 1.

The city of Grand Junction has asked a state board to more than double the monthly fee phone users pay for 911 service, hoping to generate millions of dollars in additional revenue to fund a series of equipment upgrades at the Grand Junction Regional Communication Center.

City Attorney John Shaver has applied to the Colorado Public Utilities Commission to increase the 911 surcharge from 70 cents to $1.50 a month within the dispatch center’s service area. The surcharge appears each month on landline and cell phone bills.

Shaver emphasized the city is in the early stages of seeking the fee increase.

“I don’t want people to assume it’s a done deal because it’s not,” he said.

Shaver said city officials, who oversee the day-to-day operation of the dispatch center, must outline in the application reasons why the fee increase is appropriate. If the Public Utilities Commission accepts the application, a series of public hearings would be held in Mesa County to gather feedback. Shaver said the city has asked for the fee increase to take effect March 1.

The dispatch center serves 19 fire, police and emergency-service agencies in Mesa County, and the 911 surcharge funds the radio towers, computers and other equipment needed to provide service, according to dispatch center manager Paula Creasy. That fee generated a little more than $1.3 million from roughly 160,000 landline and cell phone owners in 2008, she said.

Bumping the monthly surcharge up to $1.50 would generate an estimated $3 million a year.

Creasy said with new 911 surcharge fees and revenue rolled over from previous years, the dispatch center expects to have a $2 million budget next year. But a declining base of revenue, coupled with multiple capital projects officials say need to be addressed in the next few years, is prompting them to seek more funding.

The number of landline users paying into the surcharge fund is dropping — from 71,500 in April 2008 to 68,000 this past June, according to Creasy.

She said the decline may be because of residents who are ditching their landline in favor of using their cell phone as their primary phone.

At the same time, dispatch center operators are looking to upgrade their systems and technology.

The most expensive project — updating the entire communication system — is being driven by federal mandates. The Federal Communications Commission has ordered all public safety agencies to upgrade their 911 communications by Jan. 1, 2013. The process is known as “narrowbanding” because it will reduce the bandwidth of radio channels in use.

The FCC could refuse to renew licenses for dispatch centers that fail to meet the deadline.

For the Grand Junction Regional Communication Center, that means converting to an 800 megahertz system and building up to four new radio signal towers, each of which costs up to $1 million, Creasy said.

“As we get into our rural areas, obviously there are more mountain peaks and canyons and rivers, and 800 megahertz doesn’t communicate through anything. It requires us to build more towers,” she said.

She said the Colorado State Patrol already has made the transition to the 800 MHz system, meaning the dispatch center and its agencies can’t communicate directly with state troopers.

Other projects Creasy says are on the horizon include upgrades to computers and radio consoles and the replacement of the dispatch center’s heating and cooling system. She said the center also must begin thinking about the next generation of 911 service, which will allow dispatchers to receive photos, videos and text messages in addition to the traditional phone call.

“We’re anticipating those costs will be fairly expensive,” she said. “We know we’re going to have to pay for that.”

Creasy said the only other source of funding the dispatch center could pursue other than the 911 surcharge is the agencies for which it dispatches service calls. But she said those agencies already pay for dispatcher salaries.

“With the way the economy is — I don’t want to speak for them — but I’m guessing they don’t have the funds to pay for it,” Creasy said.

The last time the 911 surcharge increased in Mesa County was 1997, when it went up to 70 cents from 50 cents, she said.


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