City mulls reducing 911 Center funds

COVINGTON -- The Covington City Council recently discussed paying for the city's pro rata share of calls to the Covington-Newton County 911 Center, versus the 50-50 arrangement it currently has with Newton County.

The council took no action on the matter, which was discussed at an Oct. 4 work session, but agreed to possibly meet with county officials for future discussion.

Presently, nearly 68 percent of 911 calls are generated in the county, with 26.13 percent in Covington, 1.52 percent in Oxford and 4.41 percent in Porterdale, based on data provided by 911 Center Director Mike Smith. Oxford and Porterdale pay a pro rata share, with the county and city splitting the remaining costs. However, the majority of the 911 Center's $2.5 million annual budget is funded through 911 fees, leaving about $437,797 to be paid by the local governments.

The county and city each pay $206,722, with Porterdale paying $18,111 and Oxford paying $6,242. If the city paid based on percentage of calls, it would see a savings of $92,326 a year.

"We're charged with trying to find the most efficient way to use taxpayer dollars, and if we're overpaying for a service we need to look at that," said Mayor Kim Carter.

However, Smith noted that for years after the city and county entered into an intergovernmental agreement in about 1988, most 911 calls were generated within the city, although the county continued to pay its half. That flipped several years ago and now, "We're in a true up period," he said.

Some council members expressed concerns that if the city no longer splits the cost of the center, the county would then want majority say in its operation. Currently, all 911 employees are city employees and the county cannot terminate a city employee per the intergovernmental agreement, but county officials might want to change that if financing changes, said City Manager Steve Horton. Also, given the county's financial situation, there would be a concern about staffing cuts, he said.

"That's my concern, is as they're going down, it could force us to lower quality of service," said Councilman Chris Smith.

Councilman Mike Whatley disagreed.

"That's like me going to Kroger and buying more bananas than you do and saying I should have more say in what goes on in Kroger than you do," he said.

But Chris Smith said, "If we were paying 65 percent, I'd want to have control."

There's also concern that training of staff could diminish.

"I'm sure the county would love to have people participate in more training but they don't have the budget for it. The city has always been aggressive in keeping employees up to date with training," said Mike Smith. The county's budget cuts have affected training at the center, and Smith said there's a concern that could be an ongoing issue should it fall totally under county control.

"No one's criticizing the county for the situation they're in. It is what it is. But if the city says, 'Hey, we're only going to pay our share, the county could say, 'We're the biggest stakeholder, we want the majority say,' and that's only right, and they may not see training as a high priority," Smith said.

Smith said the savings to the city may not be great enough to disrupt the balance of power, and suggested city officials continue to monitor the situation and broach it again if savings from paying on a pro rata basis increase.

"If the savings were in the $300,000 to $400,000 range, we'd be having a different conversation," he said.

The council consented to allow Carter to talk with county officials to potentially set up a work session and discuss the matter further.