County's 911 service on hold indefinitely

Thursday, December 4, 2003

Wrangling over use of county tax money has shut down the operation of a new 911 Public Safety Communications Center (PSCC) that was established in an upstairs room at the Carroll County Courthouse.

The equipment is in place, including computers, dispatch stations, recording devices, communication towers and a special emergency frequency.

The center was set to become operational in November under the direction of 911 PSCC manager Candy Bawcom once funds arrived to pay dispatchers.

However, the county's current budget crunch, coupled with legal wranglings over the use of "jail tax" funds, has halted the entire project.

Several staffers at the 911 PSCC office were laid off following the failure of a one-cent sales tax initiative in November. Those laid off were involved in mapping and protocol procedures while awaiting activation of the system.

When the county quorum court met recently, it set a tentative budget for 2004 that shows $138,416 for both 911 PSCC and 911 re-addressal ---- almost half of what was allotted last year.

Part of 911 PSCCs trouble stems from differing opinions as to how "jail tax" money can be applied to the center.

Voters approved a half-cent sales tax in 2000 to "construct and equip a jail facility and sheriff's department and to be used to operate the jail facility and a central dispatch office."

The ballot title further states "Any excess revenues generated by the sales and use tax, after the Quorum Court has appropriated needed jail and central dispatch operating funds, shall be used for future jail expansion, capital improvement or county roads."

Believing that voters approved funds for the operation of a central dispatch center along with a county jail and sheriff's office, efforts were put forth by the county quorum court to establish such a center.

While planning for the new center was under way, a legal opinion was sought from the state attorney general's office to clarify use of "jail tax" funds.

A legal opinion, dated Feb. 5, 2002, prepared by Assistant Attorney General Suzanne Antley, stated that "jail tax" revenues could be used "to develop operating protocols, purchase of equipment, and development of training programs prior to the construction of any facility," provided that the expenses were related to the jail, the sheriff's department or the central dispatch office.

The 2002 opinion differs from a recent opinion, dated Nov. 19, 2003, also prepared by Antley, that responds to similar questions ---- but includes payment of salaries, and refers to the operation as 911 dispatch center not central dispatch, two entirely different animals.

In the most recent opinion, Antley stated she was unable to answer definitively, adding that the matter "must ultimately be handled locally by the interested parties and their counsel, or through a medium that can consider local factual matters, such as a court."

She stated that if a determination is made that the tax revenues cannot be used for central dispatch, the $300,000 already transferred must be refunded.

This latest opinion had muddied waters already made murky by Sheriff Chuck Medford, who has challenged the transfer of $300,000 from the "jail tax" account for the purchase of central dispatch equipment.

The county quorum court was made aware of Medford's challenge after Prosecuting Attorney Tony Rogers received a letter dated Sept. 17, 2003 from Fayetteville attorney W.H. Taylor.

In the letter, Taylor stated "Clearly, I think such an appropriation runs afoul of the ordinance that was voted on by the people." Taylor went on to state that he believed that the county was leaving itself open to a lawsuit if money continued to be diverted.

In conclusion, Taylor wrote in September "I certainly have no intention of filing any kind of lawsuit against Carroll County, nor does the Sheriff wish to get crossways with the Quorum Court." Taylor suggested no further funds be transferred until the county secures an opinion from state attorney general's office ---- or until there is a court ruling.

Other confusion surrounding the 911 PSCC pertain to the use of telephone surcharges that have been collected over the years for dispatch ---- and the difference between 911 PSCC and 911 dispatch, which are two entirely different entities.

Both of these issues will be addressed in upcoming issues of this newspaper.

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