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County will apply for 911 surcharge increase

Archuleta County Combined Dispatch will move forward with an application to the Public Utilities Commission to increase the Archuleta County 911 surcharge from 70 cents to $1.25 following last week’s approval of the action by the Archuleta County Board of County Commissioners.

The BoCC began officially considering the proposal for the increase at their May 18 regular meeting, but continued the item to allow for Commissioner Bob Moomaw’s input, who was absent to attend a U.S. Senate committee hearing concerning legislation attempting to make Chimney Rock Archaeological Area a national monument.

Although present at Monday’s meeting and able to ask questions, Moomaw was unable to vote on the continued item because of his absence at the May 18 meeting when discussion began on the item.

Moomaw said his main question dealt with the overall ACCD budget.

“How much has it increased?” Moomaw asked. “I know it had to increase some from when the county had it to when it became combined dispatch because we did add a supervisory person.”

“Yes, we did have an increase, and I believe that was two years ago, but essentially the budget has remained flat for the past two years,” said County Administrator Greg Schulte, noting that the funding proportionate to each entity has changed due to the fair share allocation, increasing for some entities and decreasing for others.

“That’s the basic point I wanted to get across,” Moomaw said.

Ranson then referenced comments made at Tuesday’s meeting by Mark Weiler (see below).

“I’m in total agreement that government needs to tighten belts, and we’re working towards that goal,” Ranson said, noting that, according to state statue, a commissioner’s responsibilities were for public safety, books and records, and transportation.

“This item, to me, comes in the line of public safety — maybe at the heart of public safety ... I’m all for this,” Ranson said.

Commissioner Clifford Lucero agreed with Ranson that the BoCC’s responsibilities were for heath, safety and welfare.

“We were elected to make good decisions and I think this is a good decision,” Lucero said, adding, “It’s the right thing to do at the right time.”

The resolution then passed with Lucero and Ranson in favor.

“That’s sort of a major step and it’s nice to see that they were supportive of it,” ACCD Manager Jay English said in an interview, adding that, in his experience, the public had also been supportive of the increase, the first in 13 years for the county.

At Tuesday’s meeting, English informed the BoCC that all of the ACCD partner agencies had expressed support, including the ACCD executive board, Upper San Juan Health Service District, Pagosa Fire Protection District and the Town of Pagosa Springs Town Council.

Following a brief presentation and questions by Ranson concerning the financing rate of new equipment and a comment by County Attorney Todd Starr noting that, based on his experience with the Public Utilities Commission, he was “cautiously optimistic” that an increase would pass, a motion was made and seconded, opening the floor to public comment.

Weiler voiced his opposition to rate increases on constituents by previous BoCCs, stating, “That’s a horrible decision to make. It’s a horrible decision to make when you can arguably say 20 percent of the workers in Archuleta County are unemployed.”

Weiler continued, urging the county to challenge their staff to look at alternatives instead of taking the county in the wrong direction financially.

“The change is excellent (referring to the county’s rebound from its financial meltdown). What got you here is not the tools that you’re using now in considering this,” Weiler said.

“I sat on the Town Council when we approved this joint dispatch and I was told that this would be a substantial cost savings to the town. It has not been. It’s been a massive increase to the town,” Weiler said, adding that if he still sat on the Town Council, he would not support the increase.

Weiler continued, “I believe that your community is hurting. Challenge your staff to come up with a better alternative. Do more, with less.”

Lucero then stated his wishes for Moomaw’s input on the subject and Ranson withdrew his motion and made his own statement.

“Mr. Weiler, I appreciate your comments, but I’ll tell you what, the county is on a campaign right now to lower our expenses by over $500,000. I think we are listening to the people and these are difficult decisions,” Ranson said, adding, “I very much appreciate your comments, but for us not to hear the people, I would beg to differ.”

Currently, the surcharge is 70 cents per subscriber line per month for phones based out of Archuleta County, both landline and cellular.

ACCD runs on a combination of three systems — the 911 call system, a computer-aided dispatch system (CAD) and a radio network — all of which experience delays on a very regular basis, according to English.

The current system also lacks the capability to record locations from wireless callers, which English has previously said accounts for approximately 70 percent of all calls.

A look at the surcharges of surrounding and comparable counties (in terms of size, population and 911 center size) compiled by English from the PUC Web site indicates that Archuleta County is no trend setter.

Leading the way with a $1.50 charge is Grand County. Delta, Routt and Summit counties charge $1.25, the proposed increased amount for Archuleta County.

Sitting at $1 are Chaffee, Gunnison and Hinsdale counties.

Neighboring La Plata County, who has expressed the intent to raise their surcharge, currently sits at 70 cents. Montezuma and Montrose counties also sit at 70 cents. When a 911 call center is established, 70 cents is the default surcharge.

English said he will set up a call with PUC representatives to go over a draft application before turning it in and will hopefully submit the final application within the next two weeks.

If the increase is approved by the BoCC Monday, an application would be made with the Public Utilities Commission. The application would include, among other things, detailed financial justification, such as what the funds would be used for, a projected budget, specific improvements and three years of call volumes for the center.

After 30 days of notification, the PUC would then hold a hearing, if public comment deemed it necessary, and a vote. The change would be effective Jan. 1, 2011.

If passed, the surcharge increase would amount to an addition $100,000 per year in 911-specific revenue. ACCD receives approximately $132,000 in 911-specific revenue a year currently, about 20 percent of ACCD’s overall budget (an average percentage for 911 centers, according to English).

New equipment costs for the three systems and an Emergency Operations Center renovation to accommodate an already planned ACCD move totals $595,554.

randi@pagosasun.com