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Maryland law could alleviate some county budget concerns — but would mean a new monthly fee for residents

A bill passed by the Maryland legislature would make it easier for the state to upgrade its 911 infrastructure by 2021 — allowing residents in emergency situations to text with dispatchers and share live video of emergencies as they happen, and make it easier to locate individuals seeking emergency assistance.

Board of Commissioners President Stephen Wantz, R-District 1, who has a background in emergency services, said the technology that would be a part of Next Generation 911 “provides a much more valuable resource for our first responders.”

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“They’ll be able to respond [to emergencies] quicker as a result of dispatchers knowing exactly where [callers] are,” he said.

But in Carroll County, those upgrades have been a costly concern. In a recent presentation, Ted Zaleski, director of the county’s management and budget office, listed upgrading Carroll County to Next Generation 911 as something “on his mind” and an area of potential concern.

The county appears to be in good shape to upgrade physical infrastructure, Zaleski said, but other expenses remain — data storage and hiring additional personnel, he said, could drive up the cost of upgrading the county’s 911 system.

“I think there is a general feeling that we will need more people, but we don’t know how many,” Zaleski said.

He said the county is not exactly sure how much the upgrades would cost, as the standards for data storage that may be required and the number of new employees necessary to operate 911 centers have not been determined.

The Maryland Commission to Advance Next Generation 9-1-1 said in a November report that existing systems in Maryland should be upgraded to next generation by the end of 2021.

Gov. Larry Hogan has not taken a committal stance on the bill, and has not signed it, but his press secretary, Shareese Churchill, said he would “carefully review this bill when it reaches his desk.” The bill passed both chambers by veto-proof margins.

The costs associated with upgrading 911 systems is where the bill, SB-0339, passed by the Maryland House of Delegates and Senate, comes in.

New revenue

Each month on cellphone bills in Maryland, there’s a section for state and local taxes. The state collects $0.25 per month, and in Carroll County, the government takes an additional $0.75 per month.

The bill would change things. Rather than a fee levied on each phone bill, it would levy a fee on each phone. A family phone plan with five cellphones on it currently pays $1 each month; if the bill goes into effect, that would rise to $5 each month.

Counties would also have an option of increasing the monthly fee from $0.75 per month to $1.50 per month.

“The bottom line is, cellphones are a fact of life now, so an extra dollar per phone, or whatever the fee is going to be, is pretty small potatoes,” Wantz said.

Wantz said he and the board had not determined what they might change the fee to, or whether they’d leave it at $0.75. He wants to see how much revenue comes in from the fee moving to a per-phone model, rather than per-bill.

But, he said, increasing the fee is “absolutely” under consideration.

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“You’ve got to have out-of-the-box thinking when it comes to revenue these days. Budgets are unbelievably tight, and this to me is out-of-the-box thinking to provide a very important source of revenue,” Wantz said.

The county pulls in about $1 million from 911 service fees. It’s not yet clear how much additional revenue the county will collect once it starts collecting a service fee per phone, rather than per bill, Zaleski said, because there is no hard data on how many cellphones are in the county.

Zaleski said the legislation could be a “noticeable help” in the short term because it will, no matter what action the commissioners take, bring in more revenue.

“This will probably be enough to fully fund [911 operations], which will free up revenue for other things,” Zaleski said.

The commissioners are expecting in April a report from Mission Critical Partners, a public safety consultant, on the county’s readiness to upgrade its 911 system.

443-525-4231

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