Commission, sheriff asking voters to approve cell phone fee to support important county 911 services, first responders

Laura Schiermeier
Staff Writer

MARIES COUNTY— The Maries County Commission and the sheriff are asking voters to consider voting in favor of the $1 per month per phone cell phone fee that will help keep Maries County’s 911 Dispatch Center running and working for first responders to benefit all county residents.

The Proposition A question that all county voters will see on their ballots asks voters to allow the county to place a $1 per month fee on all devices that are enabled to contact 911. Revenue for the 911 Dispatch Center has been decreasing each year as county residents get rid of their land lines, which have a fee for county 911 operations that ranges from $1.50 per month to nearly $5. The commissioners said if this cell phone fee is approved, the revenue it generates will be used only for 911. Presiding Commissioner Victor Stratman is paying for an advertisement with his own money to ask voters to support Proposition A because 911 services are very important when a person or family needs it in times of emergency and crisis whether it be for fire, medical or calls for help from law enforcement. 

Sheriff Chris Heitman and Sheriff Deputy Lt. Scott John met with commissioners Stratman, Ed Fagre and Doug Drewel last Thursday along with County Clerk Rhonda Rodgers and Treasurer Rhonda Slone to talk about the importance of passage of Proposition A. They know voters don’t like new taxes, but they also know county citizens realize emergency services are vital. In the past county voters have supported important issues that county officials have asked them to approve. 

Fagre said he wants voters to know the county is experiencing a decline in revenue annually for 911 because of the changes in how people communicate; they use cell phones and many have dropped their land lines to save on a phone bill. That land line phone bill carried a $1.50 or more per month charge that went to the county’s 911 operations. Heitman said the 911 revenue from land lines has fallen each year, and at the same time, the 911 call volume has increased about 20 percent annually. If voters reject this proposal, Heitman said there will come a time when 911 calls will not be answered. He said the 911 Center receives about seven calls per day on average plus there are calls that come in on the administrative line that also are 911 calls. Heitman said they receive about 200 calls each month and most of them are medical emergencies that dispatch ambulances, firemen and sheriff’s deputies. When there are vehicle accidents, the 911 Center gets duplicate calls from citizens and from first responders. 

Besides stabilizing a funding source for 911 which has been declining for several years, the commissioners and sheriff want more money for 911 to pay for equipment upgrades and to pay for another staff member so that the 911 Center has two persons working during each shift. Heitman said the dispatch center already has a second station and a second person “would make a big difference.”

With new technology, about 90 percent of the calls they receive at the 911 Center they can get a GPS location. A problem is the old equipment from seven years ago. The new equipment will cost about $100,000. Lt. John said just this week they spent $750 to upgrade 911 for the next phase. 

Drewel said if the proposition does not pass, and the 911 fund runs out of money, the sheriff will turn to the county commission asking for more and general revenue will run out of money. Heitman said people will have to accept reduced services because the county can’t afford to fund 911 adequately. 

Stratman said seven or more 911 calls in a day generates a lot of activity in the sheriff’s office and with emergency responders. Lt. John said the radio traffic during an emergency incident is “non stop.” They ask, if possible, for one or two of the first responders to the fire department, for example, to relay the incident information to the other firemen on their own channel to reduce volume on the 911 line. This works pretty well and they all work together. 

Heitman said having adequate 911 Dispatcher Center funding, equipment and staffing also will help lower the ISO and reduce homeowners insurance rates.

Fagre said when emergencies happen, people are not always at home to use their land lines to contact 911. He thinks county officials need to talk to citizens about how important the cell phone fee is for the county and its residents. Heitman said he plans to walk door-to-door in some areas to ask voters to approve the proposition. “911 is something everybody will need one day,” adding school students are taught to call 911. Rodgers said parents teach their little children to call 911. 

Stratman asked about the ambulance using Osage County to dispatch calls designating in Osage County. Heitman said he changed the City of Belle’s 911 dispatch provider from Maries to Osage when he was Belle Marshal. Osage County has a good operation and the Belle PD and Belle Fire both pay $4,000 per year to use it. Heitman said he’s not sure Maries County could handle Belle’s dispatching at this point. It requires monitoring all warrant entries, logging it all, entering it into Missouri Uniform Law Enforcement System (MULES) and keeping the paperwork. The county currently is paid $5,000 by the City of Vienna for dispatch services. Heitman said if the 911 Center had a second person working each shift and more money from Belle, the county’s dispatch operations could do it. If the proposition does not pass, his office may have to begin charging all ambulance district and fire departments for dispatching services.