By Shannon Crawley-Serpette
and Kevin Caulfield
PRINCETON — In the somewhat near future, the rapid disappearance of land lines may leave some 911 systems with a cash flow problem.
The emergency communications center in Bureau County, like other 911s, functions solely on the county’s E911 surcharges. Bureau Emergency Communications director Diana Stiles confirmed that the system is not supported financially by the City of Princeton and the county board.
“The only money we have to spend for the facility to keep it running is the 911 surcharge funds,” she said.
BuEComm currently receives $1.95 per land line and .52 per wireless line. A continuous problem with the E911 budget is the increasing number of dropped land lines. A lot of residents are getting rid of land lines, and picking up family cell phone plans, which means less money for BuEComm. A wireless surcharge only shows up per line on a family plan, not per cellphone.
When Stiles began working at BuEComm in 2010, the county had around 12,000 land-lines, and two years later that number dropped to 9,000.
“It’s a huge financial cut for 911,” she said.
The financial cut has left BuEComm living off of their reserves.
Last year, the E911 board dipped into reserves to fund a $40,000 deficit, and the current 2013 budget projects a near $86,000 deficit. Anticipated revenue in 2013 shows $528,814 and estimated expenses total $765,000, which includes $150,000 of depreciation funds for any needed emergency purchases.
The big question for Stiles is how many more years can BuEComm survive if they have to continue using the reserves.
“We are talking 10,15 or 17 years just depending on how our costs keep going up and what equipment we have to have and requirements needed,” she said.
A county referendum would have to pass in order to raise land line surcharges, but Stiles said the board is trying to avoid that possibility by lobbying to the state to raise wireless surcharges instead.
In April, Stiles plans to visit Springfield to inform state representatives of the current deficit issues and ask for support on raising the surcharges so facilities, like BuEComm, can continue to maintain themselves and prepare for Next Generation 911 (NG911).
NG911, which includes texting and video capabilities from callers, will be implemented by 911 systems in Illinois at some point. Stiles said it will be “very costly,” perhaps up to $500,000, to update from the current system. It’s a burden wondering how BuEComm will be able to fund the system.
“How can I offer that service to the people of this community if I don’t have the funds to pay for it?” she said. “It’s extremely important that the money keeps coming, because if it doesn’t then we will have to go to the county and say, ‘Hey, we need some help and we need this,’ which places a burden on those entities that aren’t budgeted to support us,” she said.
BuEComm has been looking at different ways to inform residents about surcharges. They surveyed residents at the fair this past summer to ask how they thought the E911 system was funded. Stiles said 90 percent of surveyors believed it was part of their taxes.
“When you ask for a surcharge, people think we are asking them to raise their taxes and we’re not,” she said. “It has nothing to do with taxes, it’s just a charge that’s on your phone bill that helps us maintain our lines, update our equipment and pay for the people to work here...,” she said.
In Putnam County, the percentage of people dropping their land lines has been even more dramatic than in Bureau County.
“When the Putnam County Enhanced 911 System started in 2005, we had 3,052 total access lines. We now have approximately 1,150,” Lynn Haage, 911 coordinator for Putnam County, said.
That’s a 62 percent decrease, and the majority of those land lines were only dropped in the past two years, she said.
In Putnam County, each land line is charged $3.90 per month on that user’s phone bill. Of that, the 911 system receives $3.78 per line - phone vendors keep a small percentage for compensation. In comparison, the 73-cent surcharge placed on a cell phone bill means 58 cents for the 911 system.
“While the income has drastically decreased, the trunking charges, staffing charges, equipment maintenance, equipment upgrade, continuing education and various other costs continue to remain constant,” Haage said.
Because the 911 board and the sheriff’s office have a good working relationship, they are able to share many costs and resources, according to Haage.
Although many counties have a full-time 911 coordinator, Haage’s 911 coordinator position is part-time. But because she also works as office manager for the sheriff’s department, she is on-site in a full-time capacity.
“It would be a struggle for our county to put in a full-time coordinator, office and supplies,” Putnam County sheriff Kevin Doyle said.
Putnam County, a small county in population, has a larger surcharge than other surrounding counties because it has less land lines to support the cost of a 911 system. That $3.90 surcharge was soundly approved in March 2000 when the 911 referendum passed with nearly 70 percent of the county’s registered voters voting in favor of it.
No one predicted at that point that just over a decade later land lines would be going the way of VCRs.
“No one had a crystal ball,” Doyle said.
The revenue from the cell phone surcharge can’t even come close to making up the lost funds from the land line surcharge, Doyle said. So far, the Putnam County 911 system has been able to weather the loss.
“We feel we are very fortunate because we are not operating out of reserves,” Doyle said.
Last year, expenses were $143,000, which was fully covered by an income of $145,815.
Haage is also worried about NG911 and its financial impact.
“This will mean new equipment and training. Putnam County 911 is already working with surrounding counties in order to form a system to help lighten the financial burden that NG911 will bring,” Haage said.
With less revenue being brought in and the expense of NG911 on the horizon, what will happen to 911 systems in the future is anyone’s guess. If a 911 system is clearly going to need more money and a referendum to bring in that money fails, then what?
“I don’t know what happens when a 911 goes bankrupt,” Doyle said.
“That’s the biggest question,” Haage added.
La Salle County Emergency Telephone System Board records of financial activities that took place in fiscal year 2012 are unavailable because the board is currently undergoing its annual audit.
But since enhanced 911 became active in 2009, La Salle County ETSB has steadily decreased its spending and has been storing away massive amounts of cash for later use.
By the end of 2011, the board had $1.1 million in cash despite expenses of just $168,000.
La Salle County Board chairman Jerry Hicks (D-Marseilles) also serves as treasurer on ETSB. He said the 911 board has already begun to budget less, which allows their reserves to pile up for future upgrades that can easily exceed six figures.
“We’re constantly upgrading our equipment and it’s expensive so we likely won’t change much in the future,” he said.
Goldie Currie contributed to this report.