November 28, 2013 | Volume 43, Number 47

New fee considered to pay for better 911

Haines Borough staffers are considering a monthly service charge on local cell phones and land lines to help pay for the nearly $500,000 Enhanced-911 and dispatch services project.

According to Alaska statute, municipalities can tack on up to $2 to each local monthly phone bill to pay for the system. Revenue collected from the surcharge also can be used to fund the system’s ongoing maintenance and operations.

The surcharge would apply only to local cell phones and land lines, numbers that start with the prefixes 766, 767, 303 and 314.

The assembly recently authorized borough staff to sign a contract with Arcticom for the $487,000 project that will upgrade the borough’s 911 system and dispatch center. Though the borough had budgeted about $379,000 for the project, both bids came in significantly above that: Arcticom at $487,000 and REVL Communications & Systems at $592,000.

The assembly also voted at its Nov. 12 meeting to appropriate an additional $108,000 from the townsite service area, the medical service area fund, and fire district area #1 fund to cover the gap. Contributions are proportionate to the share each pays into dispatch operating expenses. The proposed service charge would repay those funds.

The dispatch center has been using an antiquated, 1970s model radio system that often fails to transmit.

Though executive assistant to the manager Darsie Culbeck attempted to convince staff they might be able to wheedle down Arcticom’s bid to put it more within the borough’s original budget, Mayor Stephanie Scott strongly objected to the suggestion at a Nov. 5 finance committee meeting.

“It seems to me this is like the story of Haines, of why we don’t get things done. We don’t want to spend the money,” Scott said.

In an interview this week, Scott said she is just glad the project is moving forward. “Our 911 system is so decrepit as almost to be scary, so I agree we had to spend more than we anticipated. We added quite a bit to the budget for that project, and I said publicly we just have to get this done before there is a tragedy,” she said.

Interim manager Julie Cozzi said former borough manager Mark Earnest had drafted an ordinance establishing a surcharge, which was intended to come before the assembly along with the resolution authorizing the project contract.

Cozzi said according to Earnest’s research, implementing a phone surcharge to pay for E-911 systems is “very common” in Alaska.

“The idea is to try to recoup some of that and help it pay for itself,” Cozzi said.

Culbeck has been researching the surcharge and speaking with Alaska Power and Telephone’s phone manager Bruce Messerschmidt about how it would be implemented and how many phone lines would be affected.

“We’re going to find out how many potential lines there are and figure out how much revenue we need to cover the capital expenditures beyond what our grant funds allowed,” Culbeck said.

Culbeck said Juneau has an E-911 surcharge, which was 75 cents for 13 years before being raised to $1.90 in 2007.

Mayor Scott said the surcharge is not the only means of financing, but the system will have to be paid for somehow. “I just happen to think health and safety is key, and of course it has to be paid for one way or another. And the question would be, ‘Is this the best way to pay for this?’”

Scott said she expects an ordinance addressing the surcharge to come before the assembly Dec. 10.

Public facilities director Carlos Jimenez said he held a pre-construction meeting last week with Arcticom representatives and issued a notice to proceed.

The company has begun work at the tower site and other prelimiary work for the new system.

Jimenez also said most of the new equipment for the system could be moved if another public safety building is built in the future.