New 911 system could pinch County finances

By Nicolas Wahl
Newton Kansan – April 24, 2015

Costly changes could be coming for Harvey County as emergency communications centers across the state make the move to a next generation 911-phone system.

With the Kansas 911 Act passed by the Kansas Legislature in 2011, the 26-member statewide Kansas 911 Coordinating Council was created. The Council monitors the delivery of 911 services, develops strategies as the 911 system evolves and distributes available grant funds.

“The 911 council has been looking at how the system works, and how they could do it better,” said Harvey County Communications Center director Don Gruver. “What they came up with was to put two redundant host servers in the state, and all the 911 centers will attach to those.”

Currently each 911 center buys its own equipment. For Harvey County the cost comes to about $200,000 to replace every eight to 10 years, plus additional recurrent costs yearly and savings for replacement written into the budget.

The standardized Next Generation 911 would help eliminate problems with transfers from one 911 center or public safety answering point to another, as well as move centers further into the digital age.

County Commissioner Randy Hague said NG911 would eliminate nuisances, such as dead spots found in the current system.

“Our Sheriff patrol officers often have to communicate to dispatch through the highway patrol,” Hague said. “Even the Highway Patrol had some dead spots. It will eliminate them too.”

A system with a statewide hub would also eliminate emergencies caused by an individual dispatch center going down.

“But it has to be paid for,” Gruver said.

The Council would pick up the $3.5 million in non-recurring costs, but the $4.99 million in recurring costs would be paid for collectively by the PSAPs themselves.

With 117 PSAPs across the state totaling 331 seats the estimated cost per seat is $15,080, but the Council settled on $18,000 per seat to offset the cost of future enhancements such as text and video.

The excess from the largest counties in the state would help supplement those that lack the number of seats to raise more than $50,000 in a year, but those like Harvey County, with it’s four to six would be left out in the cold. Harvey County’s five seats would bring in $90,000 per year.

“We’ve got to get with some of the other counties that are our size to see if there is something we can do to sway (the Council) to reformat the way they’re doing this,” Hague said.

County Commissioner Chip Westfall said that they’re only in the beginning stages of reaching out those similarly sized counties as this news reached the commission just seven days ago.

“We’re talking with other counties, Westfall said. “But we have to get the key members of (the Council) on site here in Newton and throughout the county to explain this directly. We have to educate ourselves.”

There is an option to opt out of the system, but the costs associated with doing so would prove to be even higher.

“The economical choice is to join this system and be a part of it,” Gruver said.

Gruver said counties can move to the new system as early as this fall, but Harvey County has opted to put off the move until 2017.

“If we switched right now we’d still have to pay the old system costs and the new costs through 2017,” Gruver said. “The County Commission chose to wait to avoid an extra year of extremely high cost.”

By waiting the County can save roughly $38,000 before the old costs expire in 2018.

But even after the old costs expire, $90,000 for the NG911 solution, $11,000 for administration phone lines, plus other recurring expenses at about $120,000 per year means over $222,000 in total expenses. With annual 911-fee revenue at about $205,000, the extra $17,000 per year is going to have to come from somewhere.

One solution could be to increase the 911 fee from its current rate of 53 cents per device — anything, such as a phone, that can connect to 911 — to 60 cents, which Gruver said would generate another $25,000 in revenue per year.

The County may have to look into other ways to make up the difference, including pulling money from its general fund to help pay for expenses such as training, radio maintenance and computer maintenance.

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