Open house events offer information on sales tax issue

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Area residents who attend one of the open house events offered at the Barry County E-911 Operations Center this month will have the opportunity to ask questions about the one-eighth of a cent sales tax that will appear on the Feb. 7 ballot.

"We have been underfunded from day one," said Mike Phillips, Barry County E-911 director. "We need more money to provide proper coverage 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year, support the 911 phone system and technology, make building payments, just to keep the doors open."

Barry County voters approved a one-quarter of a cent sales tax for the formation of county-wide E-911 services in June of 2005. Within two years after the tax was approved, the emergency services board mapped the county, constructed an operations center capable of withstanding an EF5 tornado and equipped and staffed the operations center.

Today, the Barry County E-911 Operations Center averages around 10,000 calls per month. Around 1,000 of those calls are 911 emergencies. Non-emergency calls are also handled for the Barry County Jail, county and city officers and to process warrants.

"What we had before was partially trained dispatchers, no location of where the caller was at and numerous amounts of agencies to call when you had an emergency," said Phillips. "It was not properly staffed, there was no uniformity, and there was no guarantee that your call would be answered."

Over the last six years, the decline in the economy has had a major impact on Barry County E-911 operations. The system has also been impacted by legal fees associated with the lawsuit between the county emergency services board and the City of Monett.

The operations center's annual expenses have exceeded revenues since 2008. Last year, the center spent $195,295.20 more than was received in tax revenues.

In order to weather the decline in tax revenue, Phillips cut personnel, including four dispatchers and a full-time mapping employee, discontinued maintenance agreements and postponed non-essential equipment updates.

"The new money would provide proper coverage by allowing us to hire back the five positions we lost with budget cuts," said Phillips. "It would also allow us to have a dedicated fund for required phone, mapping, software and hardware updates and have the funds available to ensure we are able to stay current on 911 technologies."

If Barry County voters oppose the sales tax increase, the E-911 center will cease operations on Dec. 31, said Phillips.

"All the technology that allows us to find you from a cell phone, the one number to call for help and mapping that helps law, fire and emergency medical services find you, will discontinue," said Phillips. "This will create longer response times, which could result in loss of life and an increase in crime."

The discontinuation of the county-wide E-911 system will also likely impact homeowner insurance. County 911 operations help lower ISO ratings for area fire departments.

"This rating is used to calculate your insurance premium," said Phillips. "The better the 911 center is, the better the fire department rating is. If we are unable to provide adequate service, this rating will suffer as well. This can make the insurance premium increase."

If the sales tax increase is approved by voters on Feb. 7, the tax will be imposed on non-perishable item purchases, including clothes, towels, vehicles and other items. The tax will not be charged on grocery items or gasoline.

An additional one-eighth of a cent is projected to produce $425,000 to $450,000 a year, which would give the county emergency services board an annual budget of around $1.3 million to operate the Barry County E-911 Center.

More information on the tax issue can be obtained by visiting the Barry County E-911 Operations Center during one of the open house events, which will be held from 6 to 8 p.m. on Jan. 20 and from 2 to 4 p.m. on Jan. 21 and 28. Phillips can be reached by calling 847-4911.

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