6.26.22 – NWA Online
The Arkansas 911 Board has not received the required plans from any of the state’s counties to consolidate 911 operations to comply with a 2019 law, C.J. Engel, executive director of the Arkansas 911 Board, said in an interview.
Under the Public Safety Act of 2019, counties with more than one Public Safety Answering Point — a central location where all 911 calls are answered — must submit plans by Jan. 1 to merge 911 centers.
Failure to submit consolidation plans would force the Arkansas 911 Board to choose only one entity in each county, whether the county or a city, to receive quarterly state funding from the $1.30 public safety charge on cellphone bills.
No consolidation plans have been submitted as of yet, Engel said.
“The plan buys them two years to put the plan into action. As long as they present a plan, that money will stay the same until the consolidation is done within the next two years,” Engel said. “If they say, ‘Hey, we just don’t want to play together and we’re just going to do our own thing. We’re not going to submit a plan,’ then the board will have to make the decision of where the money is going to go following Jan. 1, 2023.”
When the Public Safety Act was passed, there were about 114 PSAPs in the state. Since, the number dropped to 98, with some consolidating on their own.
The law initially allowed a maximum of 77 funded 911 centers, but that amount has since been adjusted to a maximum of 81 PSAPs — one in each county, except Arkansas’ three largest (Benton, Pulaski and Washington counties), which are each allotted three.
Nearly two million 911 calls are handled by the state’s 911 systems each year.
Currently, 14 counties in the state have more than one 911 operations center: Benton, Clark, Crittenden, Faulkner, Garland, Lonoke, Miller, Pulaski, Saline, Sebastian, St. Francis, Union, Washington and White counties.
The Public Safety Act of 2019, or Act 660, was forged to overhaul the 911 system, make it more efficient, pave the way for the Next Generation 911 system, establish the Arkansas 911 Board and provide upgrades and maintenance funding for the Arkansas Wireless Information Network.
Next Generation 911 is a wireless telephone service that allows dispatchers to receive emergency communications by text message and information, like video and photographs.
Last fall, the 911 Board selected AT&T to implement the Next Generation 911 service with the task of improving emergency communications across the state. The $28 million contract will be paid over the next seven years.
Act 660 repealed three existing cellphone fees — local 911 tariffs, the Arkansas universal service charge and the emergency telephone service charge — which totaled 65 cents. The new law established a uniform safety connectivity fee of $1.30 per month for each device, including tablets and other devices that use data.
The doubling of the cellphone fees made Arkansas’ wireless service fees the 11th highest in the nation, according to the National Emergency Number Association, a nonprofit that promotes 911 implementation and awareness.
The tax generated $50.9 million in 2021, with $43.5 million — or 83.75% — distributed between the individual PSAPs in the state.
The Arkansas 911 Board keeps 1.25% of the fee revenue for operations and costs and 15% of the fee is put into a pot –currently totaling $8.5 million — to reimburse PSAP owners for the costs to implement their consolidation plans and other expenses.
There are currently two PSAPs in Faulkner County, one owned by the county and the other by the city of Conway. Both operations are housed under one roof and work side by side.
An 11-member steering committee — composed of various police chiefs, mayors and sheriff’s office officials — last week voted to consolidate the PSAPs under the city.
Assistant Conway Police Chief Chris Harris said the city doesn’t get more money under the arrangement. It means only that the funds from the tax would all go through the city’s coffers — instead of being split with the county — once the consolidation is complete.
“All this does is say which entity holds the budget and whether future employees are going to be county or city employees,” Harris said.
In 2021, Faulkner County received $810,785.59, while Conway received $879,120.87, according to state 911 board records.
The agreement reached by the committee is now in the hands of the county and city attorneys to draw up an interlocal agreement, which must be heard before the Conway City Council and the Faulkner County Quorum Court and made into an ordinance.
The steering committee will then become a board that oversees the consolidation of the two PSAPs.
After the agreement is finalized, Harris said a search will begin for a new director to oversee the consolidated 911 center.
While there was some debate over which entity had better employee benefits, it was decided that the city had the higher pay and the existing county 911 dispatchers would have their salaries raised to match city dispatchers. The current county 911 dispatchers can choose to remain on county benefits, but new hires will receive city benefits.
Conway Mayor Bart Castleberry said in an interview that no 911 employees would lose their jobs in the consolidation, and it was likely more will need to be hired.
“The consolidation will likely be completed well before the 2025 deadline,” Castleberry said. “We will be looking at the infrastructure and expanding for the future.”
The consolidation brings special challenges to border counties like Miller County, which partners with Bowie County, Texas, to provide 911 services to Texarkana.
The Arkansas side of Texarkana operates two 911 dispatch centers, one at the Miller County sheriff’s office and another at the Bi-State Justice Center, which primarily covers emergency calls within city limits.
Texarkana uses its 911 tax revenue to pay Texas, which operates the Bi-State Justice Center, while Miller County funds are used for its own 911 center.
In 2021, Texarkana received $446,499, while Miller County received $202,110., according to documents provided by the Arkansas 911 Board.
“The split is based on population, so we receive more funding,” Texarkana Mayor Allen Brown said.
Miller County as a whole has about 44,000 residents, with about 30,000 residing within city limits.
The state 911 board allows two PSAPs to counties with over 150,000 population. Those with more than 350,000 in population are allotted three centers.
Miller County Judge Cathy Harrison appealed to the Arkansas 911 Board to allow the two PSAPs to remain because of the special circumstances. The board denied the request at its June meeting.
“We’ve done everything,” Harrison said. “We’ve had meetings with the city and we’ve talked to other cities. For Miller County, this will bankrupt us.”
It currently takes about $440,000 a year to run the county’s 911 system, Harrison said.
“That would go up to about $900,000 a year if we have to consolidate and pay Texas,” Harrison said. “It’s not an option.”
The $3.4 million it costs to operate the Bi-State Justice Center is currently split between Texarkana, Bowie County and Texarkana, Texas. Each entity currently pays about $1.1 million annually. That would be split four ways evenly if Miller County were to join, meaning about $919,000 each.
And if Miller County chooses not to consolidate, it will lose the annual funding from the 911 cellphone fees.
“I’m not going to join Bi-State,” Harrison said. “But it’s up to what the [Arkansas 911] board decides in the end.”
The county’s new 911 center is barely 3 years old and has three dispatcher terminals. The center acts as backup to the Bi-State system.
“Miller County put up the money for it out of the county general fund,” Harrison said.
Harrison said she believes the state’s plan to reduce the number of PSAPs is a good one, but they should have considered consolidating neighboring counties with smaller budgets into joint PSAPs instead of focusing on individual counties.
“We have a lot of counties that do not have up-to-date PSAPs and outdated equipment,” Harrison said. “They should have consolidated counties that can’t afford to upgrade.”
Engel, the executive director of the Arkansas 911 Board, said whichever entity within a county receives the funding is under no obligation to share the total funds.
So, conceivably, the 911 tax fees currently divided between the county and the city could be combined and given solely to the city if they do not consolidate by the deadline.
But there is no rule or stipulation that says the city can’t turn around and give the funds to the county each quarter.
“It will be the same amount, but will only go to one center,” Engel said.
Brown, the Texarkana mayor, said there are decisions to be made, with the city possibly leaving the Bi-State partnership and creating its own PSAP with the county.
“It’s a very complicated process to look at,” Brown said. “We have to work with the county on a consolidation plan that will be affordable for the city and the county, and, above all, make sure the citizens have 911 service.”
The state 911 board will review the consolidation plans as they are received, but will neither approve or deny the proposals.
“It’s up to the local jurisdictions,” Engel said. “We’re not telling the locals how to do the consolidations and we’re not forcing the consolidation. That’s supposed to be left up to them.”
After Jan. 1, the clock starts ticking to have all of the consolidation plans implemented by the first of 2025.
“We’re having to bring multiple entities into one,” Engel said. “We know it’s not easy. We know it’s not going to happen overnight.”