Gadsden approves forming separate 911 district

FacebookGoogle+TwitterLinkedIn

By Kaitlin Hoskins, News Editor

In a business-heavy meeting of the Gadsden City Council Tuesday, February 20, the council voted to approve a measure that would create an emergency communication district and territory.

The ordinance establishes a separate emergency district for the City of Gadsden and will allow the city to receive state funding for 911 services, which it previously was not getting due to the Etowah County communications district receiving the funds.

The catalyst for the change came toward the end of January when Gadsden Mayor Craig Ford voiced concern over the city not receiving money to help maintain the city-owned radio towers that supply communication abilities for Gadsden and the county system.

The lack of funding coming into Gadsden for the maintenance and repair costs of the communication towers is something Ford has called “taxation without representation.”

The county emergency communication district is one of 85 districts in Alabama that receive state funding from the State 911 Board. The funds come from a $1.86 monthly fee on phone bills and a small percentage assessed on pre-paid phone services at the time of sale.

Thanks to the state funding, the county-wide district receives over $2 million dollars annually.

According to Ford, the problem with the county district not sharing the funds it receives is that the city foots the bill for the communication towers – one of which (Bellevue Tower) needs a $500,000 urgent repair that the city had not previously budgeted for.

Ford explained that the city spends between $800,000 and $900,000 annually on maintaining Bellevue Tower and Rock Spring Tower. According to Ford, the radios for the county system bounce off the towers the city pays for. He also pointed to Gadsden not having representation on the county communication district board.

The real kicker for Ford is the county requesting that Gadsden pay a $10 per radio per month user fee, even though the towers and radios are owned and maintained by the City of Gadsden.

The city council of Gadsden authorized Ford to negotiate with the county communication district board in a work session on January 30 and on February 8, a letter from the board chairman and Eto-wah County Chief Administrative Officer Shane Ellison arrived.

The letter described the board’s concern for the scope of repairs needed for Bellevue Tower and the annual cost of the tower’s maintenance. The letter also stated that the board willing to lease the Bellevue Tower from the city at a cost of $1 a year with a guarantee that city departments could use the tower at no cost during the lease.

The letter also stated the board would reimburse the city $12,500 annual to cover the lease payment for the Rock Springs Tower.

Ellison also said that the board was interested in discussing a merger of dispatch services with Gadsden, which the board believes would lower operating costs and yield long-term savings for the city.

Ellison said that it would be a “mutually beneficial solution” that would reduce costs to the city, ensure radio usage continues and comply with an existing agreement with the city that states that it will receive no funds, comply with Alabama law and allow the board to make the needed repairs to Bellevue Tower.

Ford was not pleased with the board’s suggestions and sent a letter of his own telling the board to identify a “new location for your equipment immediately” because the City of Gadsden no “no longer wishes to subsidize the further enrichment of your organization.”

Ford also stated in his letter that the board was “charging Etowah County’s smallest municipalities and volunteer fire departments outrageous radio usage fees while Etowah County 911 refuses to compensate the City of Gadsden for use of its towers, infrastructure and equipment.”

Ford went on to claim that the board earns more than $3 million in revenue annually and has a surplus fund of more than $4 million, yet it collects the user fees paid by Gadsden’s residents and businesses while the city’s emergency responders carry “100 percent of the burden” for 911 calls. He refers to this arrangement as “double taxed.”

Ford also disputed that Alabama law requires one single public safety answering point, citing DeKalb County and Fort Payne as an example. Both entities receive state funding for their emergency communications. He also pointed to Alabama Code 11-98-4, which states that an emergency communication board has the authority to “enter into contracts or agreements with public or private safety agencies for dispatch services” and to make grants to “municipalities for dispatching equipment and services.”

Ford accused the board of “draining resources” from the city for the more than three decades the district has been in charge and that the city “receives zero benefit” from the district while they city “provides all of the infrastructure necessary for Etowah County 911 to exist.”

He also called the board’s proposal “flippant” and said it proved that “it’s all about the money” for the county district.

Once the dust had settled, Ford released a statement Wednesday, February 14, stating that his issue with 911 has “nothing to do with the county of the County Commission.”

“In fact, I think their constituents are being most hurt by the non-elected 911 board’s radio charges to volunteer fire departments and smaller cities and towns when the radios they are charging for depend on Gadsden’s equipment,” Ford’s statement reads. “I want the people of Gadsden and Etowah County to know, the cities and county are still working great together. We can have disagreements with appointed board, and still work together on dozens of other important matters. This is just one of those situations where the people are being double-taxed, and it just isn’t right. So, I’m hopeful we can find an equitable solution. I can only control what Gadsden does, so we’ll do what we need to do.”

And so, Gadsden did just that.

At the February 20 council meeting, the Gadsden City Council approved the ordinance upon first reading. The ordinance establishes the Gadsden Emergency Communication District and Territory. A separate resolution passed afterward appointed seven members to the Gadsden district board. Those seven members include Bobby Jackson, Vance Brown, Derek Mummert, Steve Smith, Ruth Moffitt, Shane Ellison and Eric Smith.

During the votes, Councilman Steve Smith and Councilman Jason Wilson abstained from voting, while all other members present voted in favor of both measures.

Latest News

Rotary Club welcomes Commissioner Pate to recent club meeting in Gadsden
City of Gadsden and Gadsden State continue partnership
Free events planned for Poetry Month
Pinwheel Ceremony brings awareness to child abuse advocacy
Downtown Walking tours now underway

Latest Sports News

Panthers clinch playoff berth with OT win over Springville
Lady Titans win area soccer title
Hokes Bluff to host area softball tournament
Panthers tops in 5A, Titans No. 2 in 6A in latest AHSAA coaches soccer rankings
Southside shows out at Oneonta meet