911 surcharge vote will be in August

By: 
Ryan Lewis, Editor

In addition to countywide tax proposals for senior services and road maintenance, Allegan County voters will see another kind of tax on their August primary ballots: a measure that continues the special surcharge that funds Allegan County 911 Central Dispatch.

Currently, state law allows counties to set the surcharge as high as $3 per month. By a wide margin in 2014, county voters approved that cap through the end of 2019.

County commissioners set it at the maximum shortly thereafter as a way to stabilize funding operations for the dispatch center as well as the $10.4 million cost of replacing its aging radio system infrastructure and also beginning to save for that system’s maintenance and eventual replacement.

What voters will see on ballots Aug. 7 simply extends the surcharge out through the end of 2025.

 

Why vote now?

County administrator Rob Sarro said that even though voters have approved the surcharge through the end of next year, the surcharge needs to be on ballots this year in order to meet the state’s schedule.

Annually, the county board must vote to set the surcharge amount.

“We have to set rate for the next year by May of the prior year,” Sarro said.

Since voter approval for the surcharge cap needs to be in place before that, the election has to be before May 2019.

Any elections early next year would mean the county would have to foot the bill for most of the cost of that election.

So, putting the election on the statewide primary this year is early, but it means the state covers most of the cost of the election.

 

The catch

The surcharge can only be collected because of Michigan’s 1982 law, Public Act 32—which expires in 2021.

Allegan County administrator Rob Sarro told the county board at their March 22 meeting that if the law is allowed to sunset, the county could no longer collect the surcharge.

“Notwithstanding a change, it will be repealed end of 2021, if legislators don’t do anything to stop that,” Sarro said.

That said, discussions in Lansing suggest to him that even if the law was allowed to expire, there would likely be something new to replace it.

“From everything we’ve seen, the $3 would still be in play,” he said. “Either they’re going to repeal it, which is going to create a whole new funding source, which is just a game-changer—or they’ll probably renew it in some fashion...”

 

Ballot

Commissioners passed 5-0 ballot language that accounts for a variety of possible outcomes. Commissioners Tom Jessup and Mark DeYoung were absent for the vote.

The proposal that will go before voters in August states the surcharge will be levied “For the period beginning on January 1, 2020, and continuing until Public Act 32 of 1986 is repealed or through December 31, 2025, whichever occurs first.”

So, if the law is extended, voters would be approving a six-year renewal of the surcharge cap. Technically, voters set the maximum amount the county can levy, up to $3. The county commissioners decide what amount actually makes it onto monthly phone bills (up to that maximum), though the board and administration have made it clear that the $3 fee is necessary to pay for current and future debt as well as for day to day operations.

The surcharge collects approximately $3.5 million annually from the 96,000 users who pay the fee. The surcharge is applied to any device billed in Allegan County that can dial 911.

Nearly $900,000 of that revenue is set aside each year for capital expenses, such as making payments on the radio system debt.

The dispatch center requires approximately $2.9 million in operational expenses, but some of that is grant-funded. Telecommunications companies keep 2 percent of the surcharge money to cover their costs for collecting it.

 

History

In 2009, county voters approved the surcharge to be a maximum of $2.80 for five years, expiring in 2014.

Up until 2013, commissioners set the surcharge below that maximum. From 2008 through 2011, the surcharge was set at $1.63; for 2012, it was $2.05. Commissioners raised it to $2.80 in 2013. It has been $3 since 2015.

Contact Ryan Lewis at rmlewis@allegannews.com or (269) 673-5534.

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