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Identity & Community

Chronic County Budget Need Could Have State Solution

Another year, another Allegheny County budget proposal attempting to patch together funds for the Department of Emergency Services but the years of complaining by the County Executive might be about to bear fruit.

The 911 center operated last year at a loss of $6 million, according to County Executive Rich Fitzgerald, and though underfunding isn’t a new issue, he fears what lower than needed state funding could mean for the future.  Fitzgerald’s proposed $839.2 million budget for 2015 includes an increased cash match to plug the gap.

He said the county might be forced to make operations changes or reductions if the lack of money continues to be unaddressed.

State Representative Steve Barrar (R – Delaware) said this is an issue call centers throughout the commonwealth are facing.

“A lot of them are in very critical condition as far as their funding goes,” Barrar said. “And one of the things that I think would be a big help is if the smaller counties, that we could find a way to help them do consolidation efforts.”

Fitzgerald has said this is an option he supports for Allegheny County.

Barrar said realistically, the entire commonwealth, which has a population of about 12.7 million, could operate with just five centers. He cited how Los Angeles, with a population of 3.8 million, has only one call center.  But he said choosing which counties would house the centers would be tricky territory to enter.

“The problem is the counties – because it is somewhat political – the counties would have to give up their 9-1-1 centers,” Barrar said. “And most counties would fight us, the bigger counties would definitely fight us on that because they feel they want to control the 911 calls coming into their county and be responsible for it.”

When 9-1-1 was created, the majority of calls came from landlines, and each line was taxed $1 each month, which went to the county emergency call centers.  But new technology – mainly cellphones – has eclipsed the use of landlines, creating the funding issue.

The tax has been extended to cellphones.

“The problem is we can’t identify what county that cellphone is in,” Barrar said. “If you get your bill from Philadelphia, (it) doesn’t mean you’re in Philadelphia County for your cellphone, and so it’s much more difficult today to figure out where a cellphone is.”

He said many counties find the current funding formula unfair and think it should be based on the number of calls that a county receives rather than its population.

Barrar said another issue stems from the technological updates being pushed onto the centers.  State lawmakers hope emergency call centers can move beyond just calling to Skype or Facetime.  In July, Fitzgerald introduced the option to text 911.

“Of course the technology is much more expensive,” Barrar said. “It’s better, we’re doing more things with new technology, but the problem is the technology is expensive, then also, we have to train the operators – and that costs money.”

But Barrar introduced legislation to help the state’s centers cope by modernizing the laws to keep up with the new technology as well as updating the formula used to reimburse the counties.

He said if reelected, he would reintroduce the bill in the new session.