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Carroll County short on funding for more staff at 911 center after revenue projections disappoint

Carroll County’s government expected to receive at least $1.7 million in new revenue from a statewide phone fee, but in reality the amount was about one-third of what county staff predicted.

As a result, county officials who were hoping to use increased revenues from the phone fee to boost staffing at the county’s 911 center will need to look elsewhere for funding. One possibility the commissioners might consider is to increase the local 911 phone fee.

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Under Maryland law, phone bills include a fee that contributes to the funding of state and local 911 call centers, and in April, legislators altered the law so that the fee would be charged per phone line instead of per phone bill, effectively increasing the revenue. Carroll County officials had been waiting for the figures from the first quarter of the fiscal year to find out just how much additional revenue it would receive.

Knowing that additional funding was on the way, Department of Public Safety staff came to the Board of County Commissioners in November asking them to consider adding four positions to the Emergency Communications Center, commonly referred to as the 911 center. Scott Campbell, the county’s public safety director, then said overtime had “exploded." Jack Brown, emergency communications coordinator, told the commissioners the 911 center has continuous vacancies.

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The commissioners told Brown and Campbell to return with their request once they knew how much new funding would result from the change in legislation. Thursday was Campbell’s first opportunity to present the figures from the Maryland Emergency Number Systems Board.

One year ago, under the old law, Carroll County received about $270,600 in fees during the first quarter, or the months of July, August and September in 2019. During the same period in 2020, Carroll County received about $424,800, an increase of $154,200, Campbell read — amounting to an annual increase of $616,800, less than half the estimated $1.7 million.

Carroll County’s operating budget is more than $418 million.

Zaleski said the 911 center is affected because the number of staff members cannot increase, and the county’s six-year operating plan will have to be adjusted. However, there are other ways the county could afford additional staff.

When the 911 phone fee legislation was changed, it also enabled local jurisdictions to increase their fees. Carroll County’s currently stands at 75 cents per line. This fee cannot be used to turn a profit, but must be set based on need, according to Zaleski.

During the meeting, Wantz said the commissioners might need to consider a rate increase during the next budget process.

The cost to fund four new positions at the 911 center would be about $300,000, according to Campbell. With almost double that amount expected from new fees, Commissioner Dennis Frazier, R-District 3, said he was ready to make the motion to approve additional staff — though the matter is more complicated.

Deb Effingham, the county’s budget bureau chief, informed the commissioners that her department had anticipated an additional $1.75 million dollars as a result of the change to the 911 phone fee.

“We weren’t feeling we were being too aggressive with that number, so when this one came in we were very shocked at how low this is," Effingham said.

In the past, the county received about $1.1 million annually from the 911 phone fee, according to Ted Zaleski, county director of management and budget. With an additional $1.75 million expected on top of that, county staff formed the budget based on the prediction that Carroll would receive about $2.8 million total, Effingham said, which they thought was a conservative estimate.

Commissioner Stephen Wantz, R-District 1, asked how the county could not afford $300,000 for four new staff if an additional $600,000 or so is expected this year.

“What am I missing?” Wantz asked.

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“You used it during the budget process,” Effingham said.

Zaleski said in an interview that by budgeting an additional $1.75 million for 911 operations, that freed up another $1.75 million to be used elsewhere in the overall budget. And now, halfway through the fiscal year, that money has already been used in a number of ways, he said, so the $600,000-some they’re gaining does not come close to covering the money that has already been budgeted.

Each year, county staff form the budget based on expected revenues and expenditures, but expectations do not always match reality, Zaleski said. Staff have to make the best predictions possible based on the knowledge they have, and when it came to the 911 phone fee, the county had very little knowledge to work with, according to Zaleski.

“All we knew was how much money had been coming in. And that we were making this change from one fee per bill to one fee per device. So the whole thing was driven by the idea that, wow, we know there’s a lot of devices out there that this fee is not going on,” Zaleski said.

The phone companies don’t share information with the county, Zaleski said, so they did not have a number to tell them how many devices are on each phone bill.

Trying to be overly cautious, county staff multiplied the annual revenue it had been receiving, $1.1 million, by 2.75 to form its prediction for 2020, according to Zaleski.

“In doing it, we knew we were taking a chance, but at the time it didn’t feel like a big risk,” he said.

When staff presented the recommended 2020 budget to the commissioners for approval, Zaleski said they made the board aware of its prediction for the 911 phone fee and its potential risk.

“I didn’t have any concerns,” Zaleski said. “You’re always trying to take your best shot ... we got hurt on his one.”

Campbell and Brown came away from the meeting “disappointed” the revenue wasn’t what they thought it would be, but said they understood the difficulty of making a prediction with so little information.

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