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Towns consider tax to fund emergency communications
May 18, 2012 Jerry Purvis   

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Since its founding 25 years ago, the Scotts Bluff County Communications Center has seen a dramatic increase in calls, which in turn means a larger need for funding.

“We started out serving seven agencies,” said Ray Richards the county’s communications director. “Now we serve 52 agencies and get about 49,000 calls a year.”

In addition to handling emergency communications, the center is a designated weather warning point for Scotts Bluff, Banner and Morrill Counties. Part of their duties is to broadcast weather warnings and other information during times of severe weather.
Richards said the center is now receiving close to 50 percent of its calls from cell phones and other wireless mobile devices.

Over the past few months, Richards has discussed the possibility of adding a user fee, or occupation tax, on cell phones to help fund the communications center’s increasing needs.

He’s talked to a number of city councils about a proposed occupation tax, and none of them had anything negative to say about the purpose of such a fee. Their primary question was whether the county should continue to be responsible for the center’s operations budget, which runs just under a million dollars a year. And because an occupation tax would be based on zip code, some towns were hesitant to pass a resolution that would also affect people outside their city limits.
But they agreed the communications center needed to be funded in one form or another.

In the late 1960s, Gering, Scottsbluff and the County Sheriff each had its own separate dispatch center. And the Nebraska State Patrol was working with a “red flag” communications system, where headquarters would phone a local business with a message. The business owner would then hang a red flag, alerting the trooper a message was waiting.

Over the years, radio technology improved and eliminated many of the radio “dead zones” that plagued many areas of the state.

When 911 emergency services came to the Panhandle, there were two answering points: the City of Scottsbluff and Scotts Bluff County in Gering.

“A switcher would decide whether you were calling from Scottsbluff or Gering,” Richards said. “It worked well if you were well within either city. But if you were on the edge of town, you could be transferred to either one. Getting calls to the right agency was a real mess.”

In 1987, all emergency calls from Gering and the county began to be routed into the communications center. The City of Scottsbluff came on board in 1990 to completely consolidate county emergency communications. Currently, the center dispatches for Scotts Bluff County, northern Banner County and southern Sioux County.

“After 25 years, there’s been a lot of fatigue on the equipment and a lot of it has turned into antiques, technology wise,” Richards said. “Plus, in the 21st century, copper wire is no longer the major conveyance of data. It’s been replaced by fiber optics. We’re fine for today, but I’m not so sure going into the future.”

He added most telephone carriers have a surcharge to fund emergency communications. But as more people drop their land lines in favor of cell phones, those funds are shrinking.

As for now, the debate continues over how to fund emergency communications in the county. Some towns are supportive of a cell phone occupation tax, while others are hesitant.
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