Unwilling to raise property taxes, Morgan County officials are scrambling to find a way to pay for an increase in 911 dispatch service costs.
“Our 911 fees are going to triple. That is a crap lot,” said Morgan County Councilman Ned Mecham.
“This is a heck of an increase for Morgan County,” Councilman John Barber said. “Sooner or later we will have to raise taxes for roads. This stuff is going to snowball.”
Weber Area Dispatch 911 and Emergency Services District is requesting Morgan County pay a total of $356,000 to fund next year’s dispatch services. Dispatch officials say they need the increased money to help pay for new computer-aided dispatch software recently purchased, and they are saving up for an upcoming phone system upgrade.
Morgan is currently paying $83,000, a majority of which comes from a phone tax. Each phone and cell phone user in Morgan County is charged 70 cents for 911 dispatch services on their monthly bills.
And, as dispatch officials remind Morgan officials, that has been a great deal over the last 10 years, considering it would cost Morgan County $500,000 to $800,000 in order to run their own dispatch center.
“You got this tremendous deal over the last 10 years,” said James Ebert, dispatch administrative control board member and Weber County Commissioner. “And it is the best in the state.”
While Morgan has been paying for 911 dispatch services using phone taxes over the last decade, Weber County and the various cities within the county have been assessing residents based on their property values with a 0.00028 tax rate to pay for theirs. The dispatch board is asking Morgan County to join suit, placing a tax of the same value on their residents’ property tax as well.
But Morgan County Council members are not jumping on board.
“That is a horribly high rate,” Mecham said. “We are very conservative up here.”
Mecham said if the Weber County rate were added to Morgan’s current rates, he himself would have to pay $60 more yearly for his home valued at just under $600,000.
User fee instead
Rather than tying dispatch funding to property values like is done in Weber County, the second highest taxed county in the state, Mecham said he would rather fund dispatch calls using more of a fee schedule based on use.
“I can’t wrap my head around why there is such inequity in this,” Mecham said. “It is unjust to Morgan because our property values are a lot higher. We have more expensive homes, so we need to pay more.”
If Morgan agrees to pay an increase of more than $280,000 in 2017, as requested by the dispatch board, the county would have to collect $34.90 from each of its 10,200 residents. In comparison, each of Weber County’s 238,000 residents pay $18.50 to contribute to the $4.4 million Weber County pays into the dispatch service’s $7.2 million budget. Mecham doesn’t like that Morgan residents would pay $16 more than Weber County residents.
These figures don’t take into account call volumes. For example, inner city Ogden residents make more 911 calls than do Pleasant View residents.
“It is not equitable,” said Toby Mileski, chairman of the dispatch administrative control board and mayor or Pleasant View. “Pleasant View pays more than Ogden, Uintah pays more than Pleasant View. Ogden pays less.”
Mileski said although inequitable, that is the price that must be paid to have the benefits of pooled resources, so that ultimately every city has the help of all other cities’ fire, police and emergency services within the district in the case of a major emergency.
That is also the price that must be paid for the excellent service the dispatch service provides, board members told Morgan County Council members June 2 during a work meeting. Weber’s dispatch is the second fastest in the state. While 911 users in Wasatch County have to wait on average 6 seconds for dispatchers to answer, those in Weber County only wait 2 seconds. Weber also has trained dispatchers, while counties like Davis and Rich use jail inmates to answer 911 calls.
Morgan County Councilwoman Tina Cannon pointed out that if property taxes help pay for 911 dispatch services, the board is guaranteed increasing funding as the county’s taxable value grows.
Ebert said that Morgan using a fee schedule while Weber uses a property tax rate is “too convoluted” and would require a reorganization of the district. “We need to be equitable across the board, and creating a consolidated dispatch is the most equitable, economical way,” Ebert said. “It doesn’t make sense for us to create a different funding mechanism.”
Ebert said in order to consider assessing both counties a user fee, the district would have to be reorganized, requiring a vote by residents in both counties. Admittedly, he said he is unsure if the voters would agree to the district not only in Morgan County, but in Weber County as well. Rather than dissolve Weber’s current district and put future 911 service funding in jeopardy at the hands of the voters, Ebert said he would rather keep the district as it is. He said it is “more equitable system” if both counties tie 911 funding to property taxes.
“We don’t want to open it up,” Ebert said. “We don’t want 15 cities having this conversation, getting combative and argumentative.”
Options going forward
Morgan’s current arrangement with Weber Area 911 is set to end in December, and Morgan officials know that is not enough time to set up their own dispatch center or find another entity to partner with.
“Right now, Morgan is going to go ahead and go with Weber dispatch next year, but we, as a council, are not willing to raise property taxes,” Mecham said. “We are going to have to come up with something. We are exploring a lot of options. Weber is a good fit for Morgan, but if we can save the citizens money, we sure would like to do that.”
“We are being extorted and everyone knows it. We are getting manipulated by Weber County with this situation right now,” Councilman Robert Kilmer said. “Why continue on a process where we are being treated like that?”
He said the council should research the costs and possibilities of establishing their own dispatch service, even if it is just to educate residents about options.
“If we say ‘no’ now, at the end of the year we will not have 911 services,” Council Chairman Logan Wilde said.
“I am all for doing it ourselves. I think we can do it better. But we need more planning. We just aren’t prepared for it. They have us over a barrel,” Cannon said. “We have so many other problems, we are not in a position to turn them down.”
Council members have also been discussing possibilities of partnering with Davis or Summit counties, without much luck yet. They are also considering adding a flat fee—perhaps around $5 to be placed in a separate enterprise fund—to every monthly garbage bill sent out to county residents to cover the increase. Wilde said he does not want to take the increase out of the general fund.
Council members also want to explore state grant money that could help Morgan fund their 911 dispatch needs.