The Meridian City Council on Tuesday approved a budget amendment reducing expenditures by $200,000, including $100,000 for E911 services.
The cut was made in response to a projected $200,000 reduction in sales tax revenues for fiscal year 2018.
“We feel this is in the best interest of the city to bring this before you now,” City of Meridian Chief Administrative Officer Richie McAlister told the council, adding that the administration would re-evaluate the situation every quarter. The same amount was also cut from the city’s contribution to the Mississippi Arts and Entertainment Experience.
Ward 1 City Councilman George Thomas spoke in favor of the move, saying revenue was down $150,000 in the first quarter.
This move comes one week after McAlister notified Lauderdale County Administrator Chris Lafferty and other county officials via email that the city would be reducing its monthly contribution for E911 services.
But it was not clear in last week’s email how much that reduction would be.
“Due these unforeseen cost … in addition to the City of Meridian contributing [$325,000] per year to the service, the City of Meridian will be deducting these cost from our monthly contribution,” McAlister wrote. “In the below article you state the County pays enough to cover shortfalls…. You are correct, the shortfalls are yours to cover, and yours alone, because by law, the City of Meridian does not have to burden city residents with this burden and be taxed twice … That is not fair share.”
Calls and emails to McAlister were not returned last week, but Lauderdale County E911 director Jared Stanley said the “unforeseen cost” might be a $10,000 change order for the $1 million computer-aided dispatch upgrade for the E911 system.
While the city typically pays $225,000 per year to help cover cost overruns, it pledged an additional $100,000 to help pay for the CAD upgrade in FY 2018.
Currently, no action has been taken on the change order, which would replace the interface of the fingerprinting machine at the Meridian police station, Stanley said.
“The $10,000 has never gone before the [E911] Commission,” Stanley said. “It was briefly discussed by a five-member panel that was established for the purpose of overseeing the CAD Upgrade. No vote was made by that panel – it was tabled for further discussion after speaking with the vendor and the chief of police of the City of Meridian.”
The law McAlister cited is Senate Bill 2566, which states in Section 2, subsection 6: “In order to provide additional funding for the district, the board of commissioners may receive federal, state, county, or municipal funds, as well as funds from private sources, and may expend funds for the purposes of Section 19-5-301 et seq.”
“The key word is ‘may,’” McAlister wrote. “…Chris [Lafferty], if the County is unwilling to work with us, moving forward, we are more than willing to pull our funding in its entirety. By law, as stated in SB 2566, and verified by Governor Bryant’s Office yesterday, Lauderdale County must provide the service. No if, ands, or buts.”
“We perform two functions — answering 911 calls and dispatching Meridian emergency responders,” Stanley said. “As far as anybody is concerned as far as surcharges, that money is supposed to support 911 receiving, not the dispatching.
“Nothing says we have to dispatch for the City of Meridian’s self-established police department without compensation.”
This has been a contentious subject for several months, especially for some city council members.
Doubt was sown in early August when it was reported that the Lauderdale County Board of Supervisors said it would “cut ties” with the city if it decides not to help pay for E911 services. District 1 Supervisor Jonathan Wells dispelled the notion soon after and said the county was working with city officials to work out a funding solution.
Since then, both parties reportedly reached an equitable agreement.
Before that, however, Ward 5 City Councilman Weston Lindemann, who serves on the E911 board, said county taxes paid by city residents should be enough to help cover any shortfalls.
“I keep going back to the issue that has never really been talked about — double taxation with city residents,” Lindemann said. “I do realize they get certain services with the sheriff’s department and judges… But that is working out to be two-thirds of all the costs.
“It’s still not really fair, but it’s a conversation we’re going to have to keep having if we’re ever going to resolve this.”
In August, Ward 4 City Councilwoman Kim Houston agreed the city’s responsibility to help cover shortfalls seemed inequitable, but she added that playing politics with something “can be a matter of life and death.”
Lafferty’s counterargument is that nearly 70 percent of all 911 calls are made within the city limits.
“The city pays the county, and we pay all the bills,” said Lafferty in a previous report. “We are responsible for everything that has to do with E911. That’s why it’s easy for the city to drag things out because they’re not the ones that are ultimately responsible.”
Text/photo The Meridian Star