County formalizes taxing district for 911 center

by CHAD SOKOL
Daily Inter Lake | December 30, 2020 1:00 AM

The Flathead County commissioners passed a resolution recently establishing a special taxing district for the Flathead Emergency Communications Center, meeting the requirements of a ballot measure voters passed in November to increase funding for 911 services and equipment.

Since 2009, the communications center has been run jointly by the county, Whitefish, Columbia Falls and Kalispell, with the three cities contributing funding for dispatch services. The commissioners' resolution sets Dec. 31 as the expiration date for that arrangement.

On Jan. 1, the center will become a county department funded primarily through the voter-approved special district, which will levy property taxes countywide. The cost to homeowners will be about $17.68 for every $100,000 of home value. The levy is expected to generate about $3.5 million in its first year, about $900,000 more than the current interlocal agreement.

The center's employees will become county employees, and its director, Elizabeth Brooks, will remain in charge of day-to-day operations.

While the center will move under county control and its administrative board will be dissolved, the commissioners' resolution leaves in place a seven-member advisory board to meet federal requirements and make recommendations to the commissioners.

The operations board will include Brooks, law enforcement officers from the Flathead County Sheriff's Office and the Whitefish, Columbia Falls and Kalispell police departments, one member of a local fire department and one person representing emergency medical services. The cities will recommend members to the commissioners, who will make appointments.

Brooks told the commissioners the board is an important way to communicate issues such as changes in one police department that could affect the others. And, she said, she does not want to make decisions about emergency responses "in a vacuum."

"It's a place to reach agreement on things, to make sure that we're communicating with those that are in the operations, out in the field," she said. "Just to make sure the right hand knows what the left hand is doing."

Just over 54% of Flathead County voters approved the new taxing district after two previous attempts to change the way dispatch services are funded. In 2014, a ballot measure that would have generated about $1.8 million a year fell just 10 votes short after a recount. And in 2015, the commissioners proposed a special district with a flat tax of $25 a year for homeowners and a sliding scale of $50 to $1,000 for businesses; that plan was abandoned amid opposition.

Officials have said the new funding mechanism is needed to replace outdated communications equipment and keep up with increasing 911 call volumes.