911 levy heads to Flathead County voters this fall

Daily Inter Lake | July 28, 2020 2:17 PM

Flathead County voters will have another chance this fall to decide whether or not to support a ballot measure that will tax property owners to support capital improvements for the Flathead Emergency Communications Center.

The county commissioners last Tuesday unanimously approved a resolution calling for the creation of a special district for the funding of the 911 consolidated dispatch center. The proposal will be placed on the Nov. 3 general election ballot.

If approved, the levy would cost a home assessed at $200,000 about $35 a year on their property tax bill. The levy would bring in an estimated $3.5 million in the first year, or just over $900,000 more than the current interlocal agreement, to be used largely for equipment updates.

City councils in all three incorporated cities in Flathead County — Kalispell, Columbia Falls and Whitefish — recently passed resolutions in support of the levy.

The measure would also bring the center under county control, as opposed to the six-person administrative board under which it has operated since its inception in 2009.

The bulk of the center’s current $3.6 million annual budget comes from fees paid by each of the three incorporated cities based on their population, bringing in $2.59 million, with additional funding coming from a tax on telephone services and other sources. A lingering issue for the cities has been the assertion that city taxpayers essentially pay twice for the 911 center, once in city taxes and again at the county level.

Another ongoing issue is the lack of a funding mechanism to raise money for equipment upgrades.

Voters rejected two past levy proposals, with one request failing by just a few votes.

Whitefish resident and former Whitefish City Council member Turner Askew spoke in favor of the special district during a public hearing Tuesday, noting he was on the board when the dispatch facility was built.

“We didn’t fund it properly,” Askew acknowledged. “It was our fault. Be that as it may, if you’re the one having a heart attack, you want help and you want help right now.”

Askew said the extra funding raised through the assessment “will solve a lot of their problems and keep what we have a first-class facility.”

Gary Mahugh with the Creston Fire Department urged the commissioners to support the ballot measure and do their part “to get the word out of the importance” of the equipment upgrades needed at the 911 center.

“Right now we can keep the wheels on, but the equipment is starting to get quite aged. It’s time we really put together the right plan,” Mahugh said, stressing the importance of rallying support for the ballot measure.

Before voting to approve the resolution, Commissioner Phil Mitchell said he doesn’t believe the three cities are being double-billed under the current fee structure.

“I disagree with that adamantly,” Mitchell said. “Most of the calls are within the cities; I think it’s being billed correctly.”

Mitchell also said he’s “not real happy” about basing the new tax on property valuations, as opposed to a flat fee. The owners of more expensive houses “probably have better ways not to have fires,” he said, while there are perhaps more fire calls to “lower-end houses” whose owners “are not going to be paying very much.”

Commissioner Randy Brodehl, who chairs the 911 board, stated that whether or not the levy passes, the county needs to assume management of the center.

“The 911 board doesn’t manage [the center] very well,” Brodehl said. “I think it’s been run poorly for a number of years.”

He’d like to see the county manage the facility with the 911 board as an advisory entity.

Brodehl also acknowledged this may be a difficult year for voters to support increased taxes.

“It’s been tough for me to support going to the voters with this. I don’t like it; I don’t think it’s a great time to go to the voters,” Brodehl said. “I don’t like the idea of increasing people’s taxes. We have a lot of people out of work, jobs threatened. I’ve had a lot of phone calls that now is not the time.

“I hear that, but I don’t know of a better option right now,” he added.

Commissioner Pam Holmquist agreed “it’s a hard time to ask voters for a tax, but on the county side we would make adjustments to mitigate some of the impact.

“As far as the county taking it over, the county needs a stable funding source to do that,” Holmquist said. “We can’t just take it over and hope we’ll be able to fund this.”