Paul Leach, Staff Writer, Chattanooga Times Free Press (Tennessee)
CLEVELAND, Tenn. — Bradley County 911 has requested $351,000 in local government funding to help it through ongoing revenue shortfalls.
Earlier this week, Bradley County 911 Director Joe Wilson met with the Bradley County Commission regarding money problems facing the county’s 911 communication center.
The imminent challenge will be finishing its books in the red for three consecutive years and possibly having to accept state-mandated oversight through Tennessee’s Emergency Communication Board for being a “distressed district,” said Wilson.
If revenues don’t increase, layoffs and reductions in service likely would be the result of state oversight, said Wilson, which he described as a “terrible scenario.”
“We’re really proud of what we’ve got right now and the services we provide the citizens,” said Wilson.
In a letter addressed to the County Commission, Cleveland City Council and Charleston City Commission, Wilson proposed to get the 911 center past this year through proportionate funding based on how the three bodies currently fund dispatcher salaries: 49.5 percent each for Bradley and Cleveland, and 1 percent for Charleston. The percentages amount to $173,745 each for Bradley County and Cleveland, and $3,510 for Charleston.
The funding bump would allow Bradley County 911 to “reset the clock” regarding state-mandated oversight, but action at the state level may be required to fix the core issue, said Wilson.
The head of the Tennessee Emergency Communications Board applauded Wilson’s efforts to secure funding from local government.
“Bradley County 911 is doing exactly what it needs to be doing to resolve its situation,” Lynn Questell, executive director for the agency, said in a phone interview.
Dispatcher funding — which existed as part of local government costs before the adoption of 911 services — is still a “local choice” for those governments, said Questell.
Regarding possible state-driven oversight measures, a remedial option would be to merge a financially distressed 911 district with a willing adjacent district, said Questell. The board’s objective is to help local 911 districts, not impede public safety, she said.
According to the TECB website, a dozen of the state’s 911 districts are classified at some measure of risk; only two (Jackson and Sequatchie counties) are officially confirmed as “distressed districts.”
TECB is reviewing 911 service fee issues, said Questell.
When questioned by Commissioner Cliff Eason regarding alternative funding sources, Wilson said Tennessee’s 911 districts are limited to addressing expenses through local government money and telephone service charges.
Bradley County 911 receives 97 percent of the $1.50 collected on each landline telephone within the county, but receives only about 80 cents of each dollar collected for each cellphone line, said Wilson.
The revenue problem is compounded by the current ratio of cellphone lines to landlines, which is now about 4 to 1, he said.
“It’s clearly a revenue issue, because I think you guys have done well on controlling your expenses, but the revenue keeps declining,” said Commissioner Ed Elkins.
Beyond the immediate extra funding request, Wilson asked the County Commission to address the underlying issues with state representatives and officials.
“I’ll be back in three years if we don’t do something, if we don’t get some relief,” said Wilson.