911 Sales Tax May Go on Ballot

First District County Commissioner Tim Brinker said he supports putting a 911 sales tax on the ballot for voters to decide.

The proposed sales tax could help fund 911 infrastructure projects, Brinker said, adding that he does not know what the tax rate would be.

The question now is when the measure should be put up to a vote, he added.

“We want people to be protected and to be served by the first responders in this county in the fastest way possible,” Brinker said.

Presiding Commissioner John Griesheimer said this issue deals with life and death. Griesheimer said he supports putting the tax on the ballot if most of the emergency agencies in the county support the tax and if there is a solid plan in place for emergency communication improvements.

Second District Commissioner Mike Schatz said he needs to review facts and figures before he makes a decision on the tax.

Revenue Shortage

The revenue that is currently generated for 911 is not enough to fund the services that the county demands, Brinker said.

Generating revenue for 911 services has been a challenge, Brinker said, noting that $500,000 was transferred from the general fund in 2011 to support 911.

County Auditor Tammy Vemmer said this transfer was done because the fund had been operating in the red.

Brinker added that he hopes the county won’t have to transfer more money from the general fund to support 911 in the future.

But he said the landline telephone tax that supports 911 presently is only projected to generate $640,000 this year. As of Thursday, the tax had generated $549,421 so far this year, Vemmer said. The tax is set at its maximum amount, she added.

The amount of revenue that tax generates keeps going down. In 2011, it generated a little more than $1 million; and 2012, $993,813, Vemmer said.

The county’s 911 fund for this fiscal year has expenditures budgeted at $972,927.

Griesheimer said the declining revenue is a problem because the county’s 911 system needs new equipment and more dispatchers.

The county needs to build a microwave network so it can communicate with the St. Louis Area Regional Response System, Or STARRS, he added. This will be costly with the county’s terrain, Griesheimer said.

He noted that the county currently dispatches for 16 to 18 different agencies for no charge and can no longer do this.

The current 911 revenue source is not enough to support the system’s needs, Griesheimer said, adding that this has been an issue since he came on the commission in November 2010.

Schatz said additional taxes usually are not received well by the public. The commission as a whole has not discussed putting the 911 sales tax on the ballot, Schatz added.

The decline in the telephone tax revenue is attributed to falling landline use, Brinker said. There has been discussion in the Legislature around taxing cellphones, but nothing has come about, Vemmer noted.

In order for a 911 sales tax to pass, it is vital for the different emergency agencies to work cooperatively on the effort, Brinker said.

“If you don’t have people cooperating, you won’t have an item that passes,” Brinker asserted.

It could be a year before the tax is on the ballot, Griesheimer said.

The county commission would have to vote to put the sales tax measure on the ballot, Brinker said.

911 Director

Brinker and Schatz met with 911 Director Vince Zagarri Thursday. The discussion included the county hiring a full-time 911 director.

The county contracts with Zagarri for services at a rate not to exceed $82,080 a year.

Hiring a full-time 911 director who is a county employee would save money, Brinker said. This is especially important with the “budget crunching” the county has had to do, Brinker said.

However, it remains unclear when a full-time director may be hired. Brinker said it is possible that it could happen some time next year.

“Ideally, the taxpayers want to have a full-time director,” Brinker told The Missourian.

The county started contracting with Zagarri’s firm to fix problems and “catch the system up,” Brinker added.

If a full-time person is hired there may still be some issues that require outside expertise. In those cases, the county could contract on a case-by-case basis.

The county must proceed cautiously in the transition, Brinker said, noting that 911 services can be a life or death matter.

As far as renewing Zagarri’s current contract, Brinker said the commissioners are just starting to discuss the issue as they enter budget talks.