Barry County voters to decide 911 tax issue

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

On Tuesday, Barry County voters will have the opportunity to decide a one-eighth of a cent sales tax that will support county emergency services.

Jon Horner, Barry County E-911 Emergency Services Board chairman, has indicated that Barry County E-911 only has enough cash to operate until December of this year.

The one-eighth of a cent emergency services sales tax has been projected to generate $425,000 to $450,000 a year, which would give the emergency services board an annual budget of around $1.3 million to operate the county E-911 center.

"From our perspective at the sheriff's office, 911 is something we need to keep," said Barry County Sheriff Mick Epperly, who is also a member of the Barry County E-911 Emergency Services Board.

County voters approved a one-quarter of a cent sales tax to establish of the county E-911 system in 2005. According to Epperly, at that time, only three or four other counties in the state were operating without 911.

"We were able to have all of our roads mapped since 911 came in," said Epperly. "This has increased response times for all emergency services."

Prior to the establishment of the county-wide E-911 system, dispatching was conducted by the Barry County Sheriff's office at the county jail. Unlike current E-911 dispatchers, the sheriff's office dispatchers did not receive medical training.

"We offered dispatching with the funding we had available," said Epperly. "It was definitely an important service, but it was no 911 system and it was never going to be. The 911 dispatchers are trained to assist people who are having heart attacks, seizures or in labor during pregnancy."

County operators who dispatched services through the sheriff's department were required to collect addresses and directions for responders. Today, in addition to locating addresses on the E-911 mapping systems, dispatchers can determine the location of a caller who dials 911 from a cell phone.

"I know you know where you live and you know your address, but when you are dealing with an emergency, it is easy to forget," said Epperly. "These dispatchers can see where you are when the call comes in and are trained to keep you on the line. They are trained to calm down those who are panicking."

In addition to benefiting local residents, Barry County's E-911 services benefit all of the individuals who visit the county each year, Epperly said.

"If you are at Roaring River State Park and you break your leg, you will dial 911 for help," said Epperly.

Mike Phillips, Barry County E-911 director, pointed out that the dispatching center also answers and transfers calls for Monett 911.

"I know everyone hates taxes, but for the dollar amount, I believe it outweighs stepping backward," said Epperly. "Losing 911 would be a step backward for local law enforcement."

Prior to the establishment of the county E-911 system, the sheriff's department paid one or two operators to man a landline emergency services line at the Barry County Jail. Fire departments were dispatched through fire bar technology, which is no longer available.

Lindy Lombard, of the Wheaton Fire Department, said that response times have been cut by around 75 percent.

"The old way, a caller would dial the fire number and it would ring in the houses, but many of us were not at home, so they would begin calling to try to get someone to respond," said Lombard. "It is amazing that in little spots like Wheaton, on the west end of the county, response times have been cut to around a quarter what they were.

"Fifteen or 20 minutes saves lives," said Lombard, "especially when you are responding to a car wreck or a cardiac emergency."

According to Phillips, Barry County E-911 has also helped area fire departments lower local ISO ratings.

"I would like to say thank you to the sheriff's department for understanding the value of the service we provide," said Phillips. "I also want to say thank you to the 911 staff members who volunteered to offer tours during the open house events and the citizens who came through.

"We had a lot of people come through with really good questions," added Phillips.

Nearly every city in Barry County has pledged support for Barry County E-911, said Phillips.

"Everyone knows that I have lost personnel due to funding," said Epperly. "We don't have the funding to take over 911 dispatching. The county doesn't have the funding either.

"This is about Barry County," said Epperly. "I don't want to see us lose what we've got."

Several measures have been taken to reduce operating expenses at the E-911 center. For instance, five positions have been eliminated and two full-time positions have been changed to part-time positions.

Currently, the Barry County E-911 operations center employs nine dispatchers and a dispatching operations manager, who also serves as a full-time dispatcher. In addition to Phillips, the administrative office employs two part-time employees.

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