Vienna Police Chief tells city council his problems with the county asking city for more 911 dispatch money

Laura Schiermeier
Staff Writer

The Vienna Chief of Police told the city council last week that he has problems with the county commission’s request for more money for 911 dispatching. He and other first responders think the 2010 law enforcement tax approved by voters was sold as a 911 tax and the revenues are not being used in the way it was advertised to voters. Also, he said the city already pays $5,000 annually to the county for dispatching and he thinks the county is asking for the city to pay or double pay for what county funds should be paying for.

At the Vienna City Council’s May meeting, Chief Shannon Thompson said county first responders of the police department, fire departments and the ambulance district all received letters from the Maries County Commission asking for money from them to help pay for 911 dispatching, which is having funding problems due to the loss of landline revenue. Thompson said the letter they received “basically said we are raising fees whether you like it or not.” 

He passed out papers to council members about county funding for 911 from 2014 through 2018. Thompson said the county is not short of 911 funds, but instead wants to add two more dispatchers at a cost of $70,000. According to the information Thompson handed out, the county is receiving $2,600 less than it did in 2018 from telephone landline fees. Thompson said the county has moved an encumbrance from the sheriff’s budget to the 911 budget.

He said many of the first responders would like to see the county’s 911 dispatch be a separate entity and have an advisory board made up of members of the different first responders’ agencies.  They would like to see how the two could work separately. 

Thompson said when they ran the law enforcement sales tax in 2010, he thinks it was advertised as a sales tax to support 911 dispatching, even though it was not on the ballot that way. Now, it appears none of the money from that sales tax is spent for 911. They have to pay dispatchers anyway and just pay it out of different funds. He said it was advertised as supporting 911 and the money is there, just allocated into different places. 

The county wants to add two people and have two people on duty to adequately run the dispatch. The problem now is that dispatchers also serve as jailers. When Chief Thompson brings in a prisoner, he handcuffs them to a chair and leaves. Then its up to the jail staffer, who also is the dispatcher, to book the prisoner. He said they need jail staff and that’s up to them. If each of the first responder entities paid $5,000 to the county, it still would not be enough money to cover the $70,00 it takes to pay for two more employees. The county’s letter said the county afford it. Thompson  said, “Its bait and switch crap” and that’s where he is at until someone can show him differently. He said the issue is unsettling to him.  

Thompson said there is a need and the local county first responders want to help but things are tight everywhere money-wise. The county plans to put the surcharge back on the ballot in 2020 and it’s not just cell phones, but any device that can contact 911. So, for some people that may be $6 a month and wireless rates already have been increasing and people are paying more. 

He is not alone in wanting 911 dispatching to be its own entity. A dispatcher is already being paid, they can find a different place to operate, and the 911 dispatcher would not have jailer duties. He told about a recent incident when the sheriff’s office did a saturation and arrested four people one after the other. The jailer was away from the dispatch area working with the people arrested. Also, the sheriff’s office has moved the jail visits from Wednesday to Sunday but only have one deputy on duty. Thompson said he was called in to help, which he does not mind because both departments are small. 

The Vienna PD can’t afford body cameras for staff, or car cameras, or tasers, or fancy GPS tracking systems, Thompson told the council. Nor can the city afford to buy new guns for his people. Thompson said sometimes you have to give away the luxuries to handle every day business. He said one sheriff’s deputy has a mobile dispatch unit in his car. How much does that cost? It has to be hooked up to a satellites. He asked why do they need this?

Davis asked if the money that is there is being managed well. Thompson said he doesn’t know because “it’s not my boat to row.” Davis said its up to the commissions but when it starts affecting the city by them wanting more money to pay for the county’s expenses, then it is a city problem. Thompson said the city taxpayers hire them to be guardians of their funds here. He said his thing is the county told people the tax established 2010 and renewed in 2015, was to fund 911 and law enforcement and they are not spending the money for 911 out of that tax. They aren’t short, just need to add people.” What they want to “ding us for” is still not going to be enough to cover what they need.

Davis said what bothers her is that city residents pay sales tax to the county the same as people who live outside the city limits. If the county then asks the city for more, that’s more city dollars that the county wants city residents to pay for same services others receive and only pay for once. Thompson said he explained to the commissioners that if you live in town you pay county taxes, city taxes, and a fire district tax. So when city residents pay county taxes to run a dispatch, then pay city taxes and $5,000 has been diverted to the county since 1995, and now they want the fire department to pay, city residents will “get dinged three times” to run dispatch. This if they have to pay the county more for dispatch.

Also, they were told other counties charge fire departments for dispatch and fire chief checked and that was not accurate as Osage, Pulaski and Phelps counties do not pay is what he was told. “I’m sick of the whole game,” Thompson said. Still, he does not want to “be the kicking mule.”

Davis said she thinks her first responsibility is to be a good stewart with tax dollars and with city money. When city residents pay taxes, they are paying for city officers to patrol. They’ve already paid the county through the sales tax. She thinks it is a slippery slope, and unfair taxation of spending their tax dollars on county services they’ve already paid for.

Thompson said the first responders are all ready to help out because there’s a need and they want to help fill it, “But we don’t have the means to put that ball in motion, it’s tight everywhere.” 

Davis questioned establishing paying more for dispatching now when Vienna’s growth in the future is uncertain. Vienna might have money now but it is aging city with not many young couples moving here to raise families. She fears the city could end up in a place where the money is not there anymore. Thompson said he is not trying to be uncooperative. 

The commissioners decided to wait until January to hash out details. About the advisory board, Thompson said he thinks it is a bare minimum of what should take place. You get four or five voices saying what we should be done or what they should prepare for, might be a better way to handle it. Davis said there are better conversations whenever representatives from all sides are present versus all on one side and speaking the same message. “I can see that advisory board as being that, with people from all entities to come to a common place that works for everyone,” Davis said.

Thompson said for now, they are in a holding pattern on this issue.