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Impasse remains over comm. center funding
September 11, 2013 Jerry Purvis   

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Scotts Bluff County and its municipalities have yet to reach an agreement on how to fund the county’s 911 emergency communications center.

During their regular Monday meeting Gering City Council member Jill McFarland discussed her earlier meeting with County Commissioner Mike Marker and representatives from McGrew, Melbeta, Terrytown and Mitchell, where they tried to come up with an acceptable funding formula.

Council members agreed to send a letter to the county’s municipalities explaining their position that funding the comm. center based on population taxes them twice, both on the local and county levels. Residents outside cities and towns are only assessed on the county level.

McFarland said she wasn’t sure the county understood how a population-based assessment formula taxes municipalities twice. But she asked for comments from other council members who were at the afternoon meeting and asked whether the city needed to send the letter.

“Absolutely,” said council member Larry Gibbs. “We spent an hour with county and municipal representatives, but I’m still not sure the county understands it’s not fair to tax people within the municipalities twice to pay for the comm. center while rural residents pay once.”

Gibbs added the formula proposed by McFarland is reasonable and proportions the shares so that all residents, whether in town or country, pays approximately the same. That formula allows for so-called duplicate taxpayers, which would reduce the cost to the municipalities.

“This was the original intent of the comm. center, that’s why it was funded by a county-wide levy,” Gibbs said. “Now they want to change the rules. Unless we change the formula, the municipalities pay twice.”

The county’s 911 emergency communications center was created by an interlocal agreement with Gering, Scottsbluff and the county in 1990. At the time, the county agreed to fund the center’s operation.

Since that time, much of the communications equipment has become technologically outdated and the county is asking for help in updating the equipment. By 1996, the center was receiving about 1,800 calls a month. Today, it’s almost 1,800 calls a day.

County Commissioner Mike Marker said the discussion revolves around what funding formula is most equitable. He said the county’s population-based model is the best one.

He added the double taxation argument is no different than the municipalities also paying for services from the county sheriff or for county roads. Property tax is the only revenue the county can use to pay its bills.

“I understand their position, but the funds we need to support the comm. center are based on population,” Marker said. “This is for capital improvements only. The county will continue to fund the operations budget.”

Earlier this year, the county has sent a letter to municipalities giving them an Oct. 1 deadline to approve their population-based funding formula or the county would have to discontinue dispatching emergency services.

“I think we can get something to work out,” Marker said. It’s important to the citizens of the county and safety is always first.”

McFarland said the county’s population is 36, 970, but the county’s funding formula only accounts for 8,130 rural residents. The remaining 28,660 are residents of municipalities.

On Tuesday morning, McFarland sent email to county commissioners and shared with the media. She said she never got an answer on what revenue sources the county might use, such as tax levy, reserves or capital improvement funds. She asked how the county’s $109,258 funding request would only be paid by 8,130 people without an impact on the rest of the county’s population.

The concept McFarland supports is creating a joint agency with members drawn from those who use emergency services. Her email said that would remove a $300,000 property tax requirement from the county’s budget, freeing up those dollars for other uses.

While such an agency would still fall under the county’s lid limit, statute allows the county to increase that agency’s funding an additional five cents without impacting their 45 cent levy.
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