by Kate Shunney
A handful of citizens showed up at the county’s public hearing last Tuesday, July 30 about a proposed increase to the 911 fee paid by landline phone users in Morgan County. County officials want to double the fee, from $2.50 per month to $5.00 per month.
Those who spoke at the hearing said they support improvements to the county’s 911 center. Several questioned how the county let its 911 operations and equipment deteriorate so badly, prompting the need for the increase to pay for upgraded radios, computers and office space.
Tom Zahnow said it was a bad situation if the 911 center had only one of three computer-aided dispatch station functioning.
“If that CAD system goes down, that’s not good,” he said.
“What’s wrong with that situation. Is somebody not doing their job?” Zahnow asked.
Commission President Joel Tuttle said there was a time when two of the CAD systems were down, but that had been fixed.
911 director Ronald Mason confirmed the systems are now working.
“If they go down, dispatchers can still dispatch,” he said. “Obviously it’s in need of replacement.”
“I’m not against it. I know we need it,” Zahnow said.
“I just wish sometimes we’d think about doing something out of the box instead of all the time raising taxes and fees,” he said.
Tuttle acknowledged that the 911 center equipment had been “neglected” and the latest estimate of costs to replace it is between $900,000 and $1 million.
“The  director prior to Mr. Mason came before the commission several times to say that the equipment was failing,” admitted Tuttle.
“When we get the numbers in front of us, we might not have to take it up all the way to $5.00,” Tuttle said of the proposed fee increase.
Zahnow asked if there is a way for the county to look ahead at equipment needs and plan for that.
Commissioner Sean Forney said officials are looking at vendor contracts in which equipment is automatically upgraded when it becomes outdated or can’t run programs.
“That’s a good option to help us plan for the future,” he said.
Resident Dawn White said in her experience, Morgan County 911 is “terrific” and is “extremely effective.”
While the fee increase is “not a great deal of money,” she said it might motivate her to drop her landline phone at home.
“This business of doubling the fee shows that this is not tied to a budget,” White said.
She objected to the investment of money in the old Dr. Hashem office for a new Sheriff’s Department. The Sheriff’s move will create space for the 911 center to move into the courthouse annex.
White said the Hashem office should have been sold and the property added to the tax rolls. The proceeds from that sale should have built a new 911 center, she said. She agreed that the 911 employees deserve more space.
“I think the Sheriff’s Department is looking to establish a new fiefdom there,” said White. “I would rather see the needs met for 911,” she said.
Sarah Hogbin, deputy 911 director, said her department originally planned to move to Dr. Hashem’s office building, but it didn’t meet fireproofing and other building codes for a 911 center.
Commissioner Ken Reed said the current plan to move the Sheriff’s Department and the 911 center is the “cheapest option” for the county.
Resident Lou Clawges runs a small alarm company in the area and said Frontier Communications is a “monkey wrench” in the telephone fee discussion.
Clawges said the county can upgrade the 911 center and equipment, but if landline telephone service is spotty, residents don’t benefit.
“If they can’t call it, it won’t do any good,” he said.
He said a lot of people he talks to have switched their phones to cellular because home phone connections through Frontier Communications can be poor.
“It rains and they have no phone for two to three days,” Clawges said. In other instances, residents lose phone service for weeks.
“You’re talking about someone’s life, if they push that panic button and it can’t call 911,” he said.
Commissioner Reed asked if the 911 center has had problems with people being able to call through.
Hogbin confirmed that’s the case.
“In the Paw Paw area, there have been times when people can’t call 911,” said 911 director Ron Mason.
Clawges said medical alarm customers are particularly affected by poor telephone service.
“You have people who had heart surgery. These people are scared to death,” he said.
Clawges said a 911 fee increase will hit some residents who already have trouble using their landlines to call.
“It’s not worth keeping a landline if it doesn’t work.”
“All I can say if when they can connect, we’ll be here,” said Commissioner Tuttle.
Commissioner Forney said the commission can continue to be an advocate for Frontier phone issues to be resolved.
Tuttle estimated the county will collect $1.23 million in 10 years from the 911 fee at the proposed rate. That money will pay for the 911 center equipment and upgrades the county will do now.
Mason said the county is shooting for the newly-equipped center to be up and running in its new location in April or May of 2020. It will take four to five months for equipment to be installed once the county receives bids on needed computers and radios, and awards a contract to a vendor, he said.
“I feel like we have the best team working on this,” said Commissioner Forney.
County officials said they could vote on the 911 fee hike at their next regular meeting. The fee increase is not on the agenda for the Commission meeting today, Wednesday, August 7.