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OUR OPINION: Make 911 call center funding a priority

Emergency calls are increasing in Grand Forks County. At the same time, dollars collected to pay for the county’s emergency call center are decreasing.

The simple math of the matter bothers the director of the 911 call center, according to a recent report in the Herald. It bothers us, too.

Here’s the problem: The 911 call center is partially funded by a $1 fee that is paid by users of landline and cellular telephones in the county. Those fees totaled $780,000 in 2013, which is about $14,500 less than in 2012.

Yet call frequency continues to rise, from about 41,000 in 2012 to 47,000 in 2013. Before 2012, the number of 911 calls in Grand Forks County was considerably lower — 25,000 or fewer a year.

Other revenue sources feed the 911 call center and employee salaries, but the $1-per-month fee is the one probably most noticed by users.

The best explanation for the higher volume of calls is simple enough: More people are living in the county. But that hasn’t added to more fees being collected, and that’s a problem that Becky Ault, director of the 911 call center, is struggling to solve.

Is it that more people are using pre-paid or pay-as-you-go cellphones, which do not feed the local 911 call center fund? Maybe, but it seems like a stretch that those phones would be in such widespread use.

We suspect Ault’s second theory: That many people who use the 911 system in Grand Forks have their phone bill sent to addresses outside of Grand Forks County. When that happens, the $1 fee isn’t collected.

This likely could be related to students at UND, which has seen considerable growth in enrollment in recent years.

The best solution is to raise the monthly fee, from $1 to $1.50. It’s true that it’s a 50 percent increase, but the extra $6 per annum is not going to cause hardship among phone users.

Seems easy enough, but a roadblock looms in the form of a public vote.

To raise the fee would be an issue that would have to be decided on a countywide ballot, and we worry about that. After all, it’s a tax increase, and those aren’t taken lightly. Two North Dakota counties voted against such measures within the past year.

It appears that the next step is for Ault to make a formal request to the Grand Forks County Commission, and we hope she does. After that, we hope the commission moves to put the issue on a ballot, and we then will urge voters to approve it.

Emergency calls are a serious issue, and ensuring the 911 call center is fully funded should be a priority for a progressive community such as ours. The additional tax won’t break the bank, and it seems that soon enough, the call center is going to need the money.